Saudi students on scholarship: Achievements and challenges

Saudi students on scholarship: Achievements and challenges
4 min read
06 October, 2015
Feature: Saudi scholarship students face a variety of challenges after completing their studies, reports Khalid al-Shayea.
Saudi women studying abroad are seen as the hope for change back home [Getty]
Despite Saudi Arabia spending more than $60 billion over the past ten years on the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, obstacles remain between the 171,000 students who have been sent to study in one of 32 countries - and their dreams.

The Saudi ministry of education has recently started a series of workshops with the ministries of finance, community services and labour to secure appropriate jobs for graduates of the foreign scholarship programme.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Programme was intended to train Saudi personnel across a variety of sectors to replace the foreign labour force on which the kingdom depends.
     The most desirable country to study in is the United States, with more than 97,000 Saudi students

Students on the scholarship receive a monthly allowance of around $1,600 - in addition to having their travel, study and living expenses paid for by the government.

The most desirable country to study in is the United States, with more than 97,000 Saudi students, making them the third-largest foreign student population in the country after Chinese and Indian students.

There are approximately 120 Saudis studying in the prestigious Harvard University, where an academic year could cost up to $40,000.

Some students are sent to study in Arab nations, such as Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE, while the ministry of education has suspended its scholarships to several countries due to weak academic programmes or security concerns.

Women on scholarships

While foreign scholarship programmes were traditionally the preserve of male students in Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah programme has recently allowed for women to apply - and has already sent some 44,000 Saudi women to study abroad.

     At the moment, many girls are studying abroad, which is leading to a change in their outlook. They are the hope for change in Saudi Arabia

Maha Abdullah believes that the programme has opened a world of possibilities for ambitious women - but the largest obstacle facing them remains the programme's condition that a male guardian accompanies the women.

"At the moment, many girls are studying abroad, which is leading to a change in their outlook. They are the hope for change in Saudi Arabia," said Maha.

Many Saudi clerics have opposed the scholarship programme in public and have accused it of "westernising Saudi youth".

However, despite their criticisms of the programme, many Saudi clerics have sent their sons and daughters to study abroad through the programme.

Many Saudi women have attempted to bypass the condition of a guardian by getting married. But Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a Saudi researcher, says the prerequisite should not be compulsory, as it is not a religious obligation.

Ghamdi told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the ministry of education instated the guardian rule to appease clerics, but there was no scriptural evidence requiring women to have a guardian present with them wherever they reside.


Another problem that students face upon their return to Saudi Arabia is a lack of employment opportunities, with officials estimating the number of unemployed former scholarship students at around 25,000.

     Around 4,000 Saudis with postgraduate degrees are unemployed

The ministry of education has recently introduced a programme in coordination with a number of institutions, by which students will be matched with an appropriate job prior to their studies abroad -  but the project is not set to come into effect until next year.

Around 4,000 Saudis with postgraduate degrees are unemployed, which is why many students prefer to stay in their country of study to find employment instead of returning to Saudi Arabia.

Some students in the US even apply to obtain American citizenship - at which point Riyadh's ministry of education suspends their scholarships by default.

"Whoever wants to get an American citizenship should pay his own way. We do not want to invest in our sons and daughters for them to stay in their countries of study, as we want them to go back home," said Mohammad al-Ayssi, the educational attache at the Saudi embassy in the US.

Success stories

A number of Saudi scholarship students have achieved great success by studying abroad, successes which may not have been possible had they stayed.

Hosam Zowawi, a Saudi microbiologist, studied in Australia and developed a rapid diagnostic tool for diagnosing antibiotic resistant bacterial diseases, or superbugs, which allows for infections to be diagnosed within three hours instead of the traditional four days.

Professor Ghada al-Mutairi is another success story, as she now heads the Center of Excellence in Nanomedicine at the University of California, San Diego, after developing nanoprobes for in vivo imaging.