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King Abdullah’s sustainable revolution

The greatest merit of King Abdullah was both to understand the pressing need for reform in the kingdom

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

While a few facts and figures can hardly provide a complete idea about King Abdullah’s rule of Saudi Arabia, the country’s budget for 2014 offers an indication of what is likely to be his most important legacy: 25 percent of the budget (56 billion U.S. dollars) spent on education last year alone.

An avid reader and a keen traveler, King Abdullah became the de facto regent of the country on January 1996, after his half-brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in November of the previous year that left him physically debilitated. King Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005, the same year that the first municipal elections since 1960 were held.

Among his initiatives in his first year as official ruler was the launch of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. It started with an agreement he made with George W. Bush during his visit in April 2005 to the U.S. President’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, to increase the number of Saudis studying in the U.S.

This agreement has more significance when put against the backdrop of 9/11 and its aftermath. The fact that the majority of the perpetrators of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudi nationals had opened a wound in the key relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Having young Saudis living and studying in the U.S. was, in King Abdullah’s perspective, a chance for Saudi and American youth to tackle some pre-conceptions on both sides.

Education reform

The scholarship program, opened to undergraduate, masters and PhD students, covers full tuition fees, plus healthcare and a living allowance. It started with 15.000 students going abroad in its first year. In 2013, there were more than 130,000 Saudis studying abroad with scholarships from the program, the majority in the U.S. and 20 percent of them young women. The program was also extended to support local students looking to pursue their studies within Saudi Arabia but having to move to another city to do so.

The greatest merit of King Abdullah was both to understand the pressing need for reform in the kingdom

Manuel Almeida

If these numbers do not raise the eyebrows of those unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia or looking at it from a Western perspective, consider that a little more than a decade ago it was unthinkable for many Saudi families to send their kids abroad to study especially at undergraduate level. It was not only, perhaps not even mainly, a financial issue. For the conservative mentality and traditionally strong family values of the great of majority of Saudis, it was a revolutionary thing that many did not see with positive eyes.

Saudi Arabia has a very young population. Approximately 60 percent is under 25 years old. Foreign economists and some local ones often pointed out that one of the flaws of the Saudi education system was the shortage of high-skilled workers the Saudi economy desperately needed. Another one was the absence of women from the workforce.

The education reforms were seen simultaneously as a key economic measure to tackle the kingdom’s over-reliance on oil, and the way to provide young Saudi men and women with the intellectual and practical tools to meet the demands of the modern world.

The bold education reforms were not limited to the ever expanding scholarship scheme. Big changes were also introduced with the evaluation of schools and teachers and at the curricular level, with many natural and social sciences that came to balance the dominance of religious teaching.

A look at the exponential growth of schools and universities provides an idea of how fast things were implemented. In all of Saudi Arabia’s major cities, there were 15 public universities and 5 private ones in 2005. Last year, the number had gone up to 25 public and 33 private ones.

Most prominent among the new universities is King Abdullah’s University for Science and Technology (KAUST) some eighty kilometers north of Jeddah, the first mixed gender university also with many foreign students, and Princess Noura University in Riyadh, probably the world’s largest university for women with over 40.000 female students.

This investment is already showing results. Since then in most years, more women than men enrolled in university. If in 2010 there were 55,000 women with full time jobs in the kingdom, that number had already reached 216,000 only two years later.

The greatest merit of King Abdullah was both to understand the pressing need for reform in the kingdom, and to be able to identify the vehicle that could deliver that change in a way and a pace that the majority of Saudis could assimilate. For what is known of his successor, this legacy of King Abdullah will not only be valued but build upon by King Salman.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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