De-radicalize and re-energize Saudi education

About ten days ago, the Saudi Minister of Education Prince Khalid al-Faisal shared the ministry’s strategy

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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About ten days ago, the Saudi Minister of Education Prince Khalid al-Faisal shared the ministry’s strategy. In his statement he acknowledged the responsibility of education in the country in the radicalization of its youth: “the [educational] domain was totally left to them [i.e. the radicals of the country], [as such] there was no chance for Saudi moderate thought and a [teach] a moderate way of life. We abandoned our sons and daughters and they kidnaped them.” The statement went viral among Saudis.

This was the frankest statement made by a senior Saudi government official who is also a senior member of the al-Saud royal family not only about the role of education, but also about the responsibility of the state for allowing radical elements in the country to control and guide the educational process. To hear him say that “we abandoned our sons and daughters and they kidnaped them” was a surprise to liberals and radicals alike.

For the past thirteen years Saudis have been discussing the role of education in radicalizing Saudi youth

Abdullah Hamidaddin

For the past thirteen years Saudis have been discussing the role of education in radicalizing Saudi youth. The participation of many Saudis in the 9/11 attacks came as a shock to many Saudis citizens and officials alike, and the first target of critique was the educational curricula. The focus was on the intense religious content of curricula.

Saudi students were exposed in their twelve year education cycle to a very radical religious content. So it was natural that Saudis should start by asking about the role of such a long socialization process on Saudi mindset and world view. One of the early critiques on this religious content was written about eleven years ago - co-authored by a previous judge Abdulaziz al-Qasim - and provoked at that time a strong backlash from the radical camp in the country. Op-Eds started focusing on more than the content of the curricula, to the whole educational system: the atmosphere it creates in the classroom, the institutional culture throughout the ministry of Education, and of the financial interests of the radicals benefiting from the generous budget allocated to education. One important critic was Dr. Hamza al-Mozaini who published a series of articles on the situation of education in the country, and later put then in a book entitled: “Kidnapping Education.” A few years later al-Mozain’s framing of what had happened to education would become the official line of the government.

Educational reform

The government has done a lot to reform education since those debates started. The religious content was skimmed and extra curricula religious programs were constrained. But that did not work. The Ministry of Education is a massive organization; employing more than half a million individuals. Creating change in such a body is not an easy feat. Resistance to change had to do with entrenched interests, and networks of mutual benefits. It is not just a matter of issuing a royal order. A previous minister of Education Mohammad al-Rasheed had complained from the role of schools in going beyond their mandate, and instilling in students values that are not required of them. He also highlighted the intense resistance to change. The radicals considered education their private dominion. No one was to trespass it, even the government. Reading his statements you would feel that the ministry has a shadow ministry putting pressure against any change mandated by the minister or by the king himself.

A hornet’s nest

For me to say that the previous efforts did not work is not accurate. Much has happened in the past ten years, and changes have been felt by those living in Saudi Arabia or closely observing it. But much more needed to be done, more radical steps had to be made, and a harsher government line against the radical hijacking of education has to be clearly stated. Especially when we see that Saudis are still lured by calls to “jihad” in Syria and – to a lesser degree – in Iraq. And here is where al-Faisal comes in.

His strategy includes sending 25,000 teachers – males and females – abroad. It is a strategy to circumvent the resistance to change within the ministry. And it is a humongous step which will have a marked effect on the future of education in Saudi Arabia. So while most of the Saudi debates on his statement focused on his “hijacking” note the real attention was to that major step. Sending students abroad has been an anathema for the radicals. They see it as a way of re-shaping the culture of Saudi youth by exposing them to Western ways of life. So to come now and send teachers! Who will come back and teach the sons and daughters of Saudi Arabia! That is beyond what they can tolerate.

Al-Faisal has indeed stirred a hornet’s nest.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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