Saudi students face a changing system

Reformers are hoping to remove inflexible - and sometimes anti-Western - aspects of the Saudi educational system. A flagging economy makes the task urgent.

Third of four parts

Amal is a twentysomething fourth-year medical student whose parents taught her to dream big. She does: Amal wants to be Saudi Arabia's first famous female plastic surgeon.

Mansour al-Nogaidan is a thirtysomething writer who grew up with a different dream - he wanted to become a devout Muslim and rid the region, if not the world, of infidels. Mr. Nogaidan did live his dream - for a time. He became a jihadist, and attempted to purge his country of "infidels."

That both these dreams were nurtured by the same educational system underscores the challenges facing reformers in Saudi Arabia. That Amal can pursue her educational goals is remarkable, considering the country opened schools for girls only in 1960. But whether she will have been prepared for a real job is another thing.

Nogaidan has amended his ways, but says that the seeds of his extremism were planted during his early education. The government is working on a number of reforms but as with all other reforms necessary in this country, it's a difficult balancing act between hard-line religious conservatives and more liberal-minded citizens.

"We need to have a rehabilitation program," says Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News, the largest English language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. "We need to teach our children tolerance and dialogue.... Parents would rather see their children carry a PC than a hand grenade or an AK-47."

A fight to reform the system

The government last year began to remove objectionable language in textbooks. According to several educators and students alike, this year school texts were cleansed of objectionable references to Jews, Christians, and Hindus, and the inappropriate use of the word "jihad." A government council made up of several educators and other professionals is reexamining both textbooks and teaching habits.

But, "the No. 1 problem is that the religious community is so tough in opposing reforms," says a Western diplomat based in Riyadh. "The No. 2 problem is they argue, 'Why should we make reforms? Because Americans ask us to?' "

Indeed, one muttawa (member of the religious police) puts a harder edge on the point. "Do you have committees in America purging your books of objectionable words about Muslims?" asks Sheikh Mussa al-Hanagid.

Nogaidan says that attitudes like this are what make the system so difficult to change. "It's impossible to wait for these sheikhs to change the education system, because they are the ones controlling [it], says Nogaidan. "It's the problem the authorities face."

But reform is goes beyond hateful words and intolerant phrases. Many here say the education system needs top-to-bottom fixes to not only root out the ideology that leads to terrorism, but to keep up with a developing society and globalization.

Lifestyles, for instance, have drastically changed here. In 1981, per capita income was $28,000. Today, it is about $8,000, according to government figures. Although the oil boom economy of the 1970s and '80s that supported millions of foreign workers doesn't exist today, the number of foreign workers has swelled to some 7 million, and they fill 7 out of 10 jobs here, working mostly in the service sector, and earning far less than Saudis. More Saudi students than ever (and more women than men) are graduating from universities but can't find jobs.

Moreover, many Saudi observers say the early public education system, which is strong in sciences and math - especially for boys - doesn't teach critical thinking skills. Nor do Saudi lifestyles encourage the kind of initiative necessary to compete in the business world.

"Since 1999, Saudi Arabia started realizing that more young people coming into the market cannot meet the market needs," says Abdulrahman al-Zamil, a businessman who serves on the finance committee of the king's Majlis Ash Shura (consultative counsel). "They are specializing in language or religion.... It's a problem for the private sector."

The government is working to alleviate the pressures. It has had some on-and-off successes with a Saudization program - replacing some foreign workers, such as shopkeepers in the souks, with Saudi citizens. In addition, the Ministry of Education embarked on a major study for revamping the system eight years ago, and presented its findings to the Majlis in October 2001.

"The summary of the report was 150 pages," says Abdulmuhsin al-Akkas, a member of the Majlis. "The entire report was about 800 pages. And the reform included every aspect - curriculum, not just religious subjects ... English, math, and science. It included recommendations on the structure of the schools, about the ratio of students to teachers, continuing education of teachers, and so on."

Boosting the budget

Those reforms have been debated by the Majlis and sent back to the Ministry of Education for implementation of the recommendations - so far not released to the public.

The government has, however, announced plans to enhance several aspects of the education system in the new 2004 budget. It allocates $16.97 billion for general education, higher education, and manpower training for 2004, up by $5.6 billion from last year's budget.

The additional money will fund three new universities, bringing the total number of universities in the kingdom to 11. A number of colleges and vocational training centers are planned, as well as 3,030 new schools for boys and girls. Now, some 70 percent of boys' and girls' schools are housed in dilapidated, rented buildings.

For Amal, uncertain prospects

Amal, for her part, says she may go abroad for more advanced study after she completes the two additional years of her seven-year medical studies program in Saudi Arabia.

Although the medical field is open to women here, she doesn't know if she will have a job when she returns.

Amal's younger sister, Scheda, is a first-year university student who hasn't yet declared a major. She had wanted to be an engineer, but that field of study is not open to women in Saudi Arabia.

"Young people have nothing to do," she complains. "They feel empty - there are no jobs when they finish college."

The Western diplomat says in other societies, it is the young people, like Scheda and Amal, who normally challenge old ideas. "Here in the kingdom," he says, "young people are quiet. A big part of it is education, but it is also societal. That you do not challenge your father."

The practice of questioning and critical thinking is missing from the early education system here, says an American woman who married a Saudi and became a Saudi citizen. She raised four children in the Riyadh area - all of them attended school here until the ninth grade.

"The schools here offer a lot of rote memorization from the time [students] are young," says the woman who requested anonymity, all but her face covered in the traditional black. "Kids aren't encouraged to ask questions in school.... Kids aren't taught logical and critical thinking."

Part of that, she asserts, is because there is no public speaking - classes in which children prepare and present talks or speeches. And there is no arts education - no music or art - "the things that make you a whole person."

Moreover, she says, young Saudis' unpreparedness to compete in the job market with the millions of foreign workers has a lot to do with the way children are brought up.

"Every family, even if they're poor, has a maid," she says. "Kids don't do chores.... There are no bake sales in school, no car washes, no paper routes after school, nothing to teach them personal accomplishment - not even summer jobs."

"Education reforms need to start from the king," says A. A. Alabdul Hai, a political science professor who specializes in women's issues at King Saud University in Riyadh. "It should be changed completely.... It will take time. The education process takes 10 to 20 years to change. It's not like boiling an egg."

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