From the outside, the tan brick and glass mid-rise office building in a suburb of Virginia seems ordinary and familiar. It resembles the headquarters of a moderately successful technology company. Inside these doors, however, a Saudi revolution is taking place that will have dramatic effects on the kingdom’s future.
The office is home to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States. The Cultural Mission administers the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) in the United States, one of the most ambitious feats of social and educational engineering in the modern history of the Middle East – and in the world.
All told, some 200,000 Saudis are studying - on full scholarships and generous health care packages - from undergraduate to doctorate levels around the world, from South Africa to South Korea, Ireland to Italy, the United Kingdom to the United States – 23 countries in total. Of those, 25 percent are female, and the numbers are higher in the graduate levels. Education researchers have called the King Abdullah Scholarship program the largest nationally-funded higher education program in the world.
With a stroke of his pen and the might of oil wealth, King Abdullah in 2005 launched an educational revolution for young Saudis. The vast majority of those young Saudis are studying in the United States. Thus, the Cultural Mission headquarters in a suburban area of northern Virginia can be seen as the site of an educational revolution, administering some 100,000 Saudi students studying in the United States.
With a stroke of his pen and the might of oil wealth, King Abdullah in 2005 launched an educational revolution for young SaudisAfshin Molavi
David Ottoway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Washington Post journalist, cites the scholarship program as one of the reasons that “history may well assess Abdullah to have been the most popular and politically astute of the five sons of King Abdulaziz to have ruled the kingdom since his death in 1953.” As Ottoway writes, “He will be remembered in Saudi history particularly for his promotion of Saudi women into politics and for sending tens of thousands of Saudi students to the United States and Europe to modernize his challenged kingdom.”
Across the nation
The scholars Charles Taylor and Wasmiah Albasri, in an article in Scientific Research Journal, note that Saudi Arabia ranks fourth in terms of the percentage of foreign students studying in the United States, after China, India, and South Korea. Those Saudi students are dispersed throughout the country, across the American heartland, and not only in urban centers. They cite universities in Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Oregon, California and Kentucky as among the most favored destinations for Saudi students.
It is estimated that the kingdom invests nearly $2.4 billion per year in the scholarship program. Before the scholarship was instituted there were less than 5,000 Saudi students studying in the U.S.. Now, there are close to 100,000. This is a dramatic rise - with few precedents - in U.S. education history.
While much has been written about King Abdullah’s legacy, the scholarship program may be one of his most defining achievements. There is little debate about the correlation between education levels and economic growth, productivity, and innovation. The KASP generation of students will return to the kingdom with broader global outlooks and tangible skills to support the kind of private sector-led development that Saudi Arabia needs in its next phase of growth. The program makes long-term economic sense, even with its expensive price tag.
In a Middle East region full of gaps, the opportunity gap has been among the most damaging to youth. The KASP program is giving some 200,000 Saudis an opportunity to see the world, study in the best universities, and grow their potential.
In an important article in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, the education scholars Abdulrahman M. Abouammoh, Larry R. Smith, and Abdul-Aziz M. Duwais note correctly that “the reality is that Saudi Arabia currently relies too heavily on overseas experts and the outputs from overseas research to drive its industry-based research and development.”
The KASP program will help fill that gap as tens of thousands of Saudi students begin making their way home. The authors cite a 900% increase in the numbers of Saudi students studying abroad since the scholarship program was launched.
James Smith, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, lauded the meritocratic nature of the program in a conversation with the Saudi U.S. Relations Information Service (SUSRIS).
“What many people do not understand is the unique nature of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program because it is a merit-based program and was developed that way,” Ambassador Smith told SUSRIS. “So it’s not populated by students whose parents have influence, it’s populated by students that have grades. So in the process of issuing visas we would find students from all over the country, not just the major urban areas, but students who had excelled in school, and then in a merit-based program they were awarded scholarships in the King Abdullah Scholarship Program.”
Smith also acknowledges the challenge in the domestic education system, noting that “the easy part is building the building. The challenging part is what’s behind the walls. On this you have to say that the expansion and commitment to education really is in an infant stage. While you have the facilities being created, the curriculum, all of those things that you need to have a world-class education are still developing.”
He noted that “the good news is that a large number of these students studying in the United States and other countries are earmarked to come back to these universities as professors. So the potential is there. It’s going to take a while for all of this to evolve and for them to build a world-class higher education system.”
It is still too early to assess the KASP program’s effects on Saudi society and the economy. Absorbing all of those returning graduates into private sector jobs will be vital. Still, a whole generation of young Saudis have been given a unique opportunity. The rest will be up to them.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow and director of the Global Emerging and Growth Markets Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank.