Tying together every current long-term social and economic development plan for Saudi Arabia is the increased participation of non-hydrocarbons industries in the economy. But key to delivering on this aim are the abilities of its population and the knowledge of its future leaders to successfully navigate from a resource-based, export-oriented economy to a more diversified one with greater value added. Recognising that an efficient education system is central to success as it provides the skills necessary to achieve these ambitions, the government has dedicated substantial resources to the sector over the past decade.


These efforts have focused on greater monetary disbursements – the education budget is the second-largest expenditure for the state, accounting for more than a quarter of all spending in 2012 – and qualitative improvements in the form of curriculum reform, teacher training and quality control programmes. With both the largest population and the greatest per capita expenditure on human resources in the GCC, the Kingdom has the biggest education market in the region – one which regularly accounts for one-quarter to one-fifth of the government’s yearly budget. Annual expenditures increased from SR150bn ($39.98bn) in 2011 to SR169bn ($45.04bn) the following year, with a further rise to SR204bn ($54.37bn) for 2013. Complementing these monetary commitments are a host of monitoring, evaluation, reform and other improvement programmes implemented over the years to boost the capabilities and expectations of the nation’s graduates, helping them to be not just among the region’s finest, but to compete with the world’s best and brightest.

“I would say we’re living in the golden age of education these days in Saudi Arabia, with a wise government recognising that its future is tied to the education of its youth,” Lilac Ahmad Al Safadi, vice-rector for academic affairs at Dar Al Uloom University, told OBG. “Through the government’s tremendous support in terms of budget allocation, improvement of the education system’s policies and regulations, development of educational infrastructure and scholarships, we have a great opportunity to be globally competitive and develop in a sustainable way.”

By The Numbers

Although much has been made of the government’s substantial efforts to reform and improve the educational system, a good deal of the resources funnelled into the sector go towards simply keeping up with the county’s growing school-aged population. With an estimated 28.8% of the population under the age of 15 compared with just 3% over the age of 65 as of 2012, according to figures from the CIA World Factbook, demand for education is enormous. More than half of the Kingdom’s population is under the age of 25 and the county’s median age is estimated at 25.7 years – 26.7 years old for men and 24.4 years old for women. This has ramifications across the board, starting from first-graders all the way through to PhD doctorate students.

At the same time, the population is also expanding. Literacy and enrolment rates are on the rise, meaning that not only are there more school-aged members of Saudi society, but an increasing proportion within this demographic is attending classes and staying enrolled in school longer.

Diversifying The Economy

The second major driver of change in the education sector is financially motivated, as Saudi Arabia tries to diversify its economy beyond extraction of oil and gas. Although there are myriad social and cultural factors contributing to the high unemployment rate among nationals, addressing the lack of educational skills among locals should be a step in the right direction. As the global economy becomes increasingly knowledge based, even basic jobs require ever more sophisticated skills. This trend is consistent with the country’s long-term economic development plans, which place an emphasis on high-tech industries such as environmental and information technology, advanced materials, medicine, biotechnology, nanotechnology and other high-value-added fields.

These demographic trends, combined with an improving enrolment ratio, have led to a steady rise in student attendance that ought to continue for the foreseeable future. According to the most recent available data from the Central Department of Statistics and Information and the Ministry of Education (MoE), a total of 6.36m students were attending public schools as of the 2010 school year, up from 6.16m students the previous year and 6.0m in 2008. Reflecting the country’s young population, more than half of these students were enrolled in elementary schools (3.32m), while 1.59m attended intermediate schools and 1.44m were in secondary schools. Male students also outnumbered their female counterparts 3.27m to 3.09m.

Starting On The Right Foot

These efforts come at a crucial time for Saudi Arabia, with demographic shifts necessitating a massive increase in the number of places for students as well as a corresponding emphasis on reducing unemployment and improving the competitiveness of graduates. With this in mind, state and private sector participants are working hard to boost skills across the board. Broadly speaking, the education system is divided into the two basic categories of general education and higher education, both of which are further subdivided into more specialised categories. General education encompasses the first 12 years of instruction for students, starting at the age of six, and includes pre-primary, primary and secondary schools. Higher education contains a wide variety of specialisations within it, such as technical and trade colleges, universities, postgraduate programmes and other institutions. Although private institutions have been making rapid inroads, they currently serve only around 10% of the country’s student population.

Literacy Rates

While the overall adult literacy rate of 86.55% leaves room for improvement, the effects of recent efforts to reform the education sector are evident in the substantially improved literacy rates among younger Saudis. For those between the ages of 15 and 24, literacy rates improved to a much more respectable 97.82%. The gap between male and female literacy rates for the younger generation was also closed to within a few percentage points (96.76% for women versus 98.86% for men). This compares favourably with the numbers for all Saudis aged 15 and older, where women fared significantly worse with a literacy rate of 81.35%, as compared to 90.42% for their male counterparts. The positive trends illustrated by this data help to legitimise the government’s ongoing efforts to improve the education sector and they bode well for the future.


Saudi students of both genders also fared well when compared to their regional neighbours. Literacy rates for both adults aged 15 and over and youths aged 15-24 were measurably better than the regional averages at 86.6% domestically versus 74.7% regionally and 97.8% versus 89.5%, respectively. The Kingdom also scored relatively high marks for mean years of schooling for adults at 7.8, ranking it ninth among 18 Arab states (with a mean of 5.9 years) but dropping to 91 in global rankings.

Student-to-teacher ratios ranged from 8.85:1 to 11.15:1 depending on the level of education. Lower secondary and secondary schools boasted the most favourable ratios at 8.85 and 9.75 students for each teacher, followed by pre-primary classes at 10.28:1, while upper secondary (10.99:1) and primary (11.15:1) had the highest ratios according to UNESCO data.

Quality Control

While the sheer amount of money being poured into the sector is impressive, many feel that efforts to improve the qualitative side are of even more importance than the budget itself. As domestic and international competition for jobs heats up, students must be more determined than ever to stand out from their peers, and educational institutions must likewise step up their efforts to provide quality curriculum and facilities on par with those of their competitors. These efforts are carried out through a variety of means including accreditation programmes, standardised testing and evaluation, educator training programmes, bringing in visiting professors from other respected international institutions and other measures to boost the reputation of local schools.

According to Prince Faisal Mashary Al Saud, general manager of the National Centre for Assessment in Higher Education, ongoing evaluation will be key to this effort. “To improve the overall standard of education, it is not enough to simply modify curricula and strengthen the admission processes. A system of continuous evaluation throughout the system needs to be implemented to not only track performance, but also teaching methods and their effectiveness prior to students arriving at universities,” Prince Faisal told OBG.

Khalid A Al Hamoudi, the president of Qassim University, told OBG that ensuring quality will be critical going forward. “Given the increasing competition in the higher education sector in the Kingdom, the focus of all stakeholders must be on the quality of services and ensuring international standards are achieved across the board,” Al Hamoudi said.

One of the most frequently aired grievances among tertiary institutions and the private sector firms that employ their graduates is the lack of preparedness of many students for the rigours of higher education and the job market. This is especially true for fields with strong international competition, and where it is crucial for aspiring applicants to possess basic communication, language, leadership and other skills.

“Demand for English language education is extremely high,” Sahal Sami Hefzi, president of the Wall Street Institute, told OBG. “Young Saudis are leaving school and university with poor standards of spoken and written English. I think there needs to be a reassessment of how languages are taught in the system; there needs to be a modernisation of teaching methods.”

Addressing Shortcomings

One of the most critical cogs in the government’s education oversight apparatus is the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Project for Developing Public Education, or Tatweer as it is commonly known from its Arabic acronym. Established in 2008 under its parent Tatweer Education Holding Company (THC), it targets four priority areas of furthering teacher skills, developing curricula, enhancing extracurricular activities and improving school environments, all with an eye towards addressing shortcomings in areas such as the development of competitive skills. THC has also branched out into other support aspects through its subsidiaries, including the Tatweer Education Transport Company, responsible for the administration and supervision of school transport services; the Educational Services Company, which specialises in providing core educational services; and a third subsidiary called the Tatweer Building Company, which is expected to take over the construction, management and maintenance of schools from the MoE.

Accreditation & Evaluation

Another vital institution is the National Commission for Academic Accreditation & Assessment (NCAAA). Established in 2003, it is tasked with determining standards and criteria for academic accreditation and assessment, and for accrediting postsecondary institutions and programmes. Overseeing public and private institutions, it operates with administrative and financial autonomy in an effort to remain impartial, although it answers to the Higher Council of Education. This body looks to be joined soon by another institution known as the General Education Evaluation Authority (GEEA), which will have a more specific purview of assessing the performance of public and private schools by conducting standardised tests. Similar to other sector authorities, GEEA will remain financially and administratively independent under the oversight of the Council of Ministers. It will be led by a board of directors representing much of the education spectrum, including representatives from the MoE, the National Commission for Academic Evaluation and Accreditation, the National Centre for Evaluation, the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC), and the Saudi Society for Educational and Psychological Sciences. The creation of the new entity was first announced in October 2012, although it remained unclear as of the time of publication when the GEEA would become operational or what overlap, if any, it would have with existing institutions.


The National Centre for Assessment in Higher Education (NCAHE), created in 2002, is in charge of overseeing higher education. It performs duties for colleges and universities similar to those carried out by the NCAAA and the future GEEA, such as setting admission requirements, developing and administering a wide variety of standardised tests, and establishing an independent administrative and financial centre.

In practical terms, the body is instrumental in deciding which students are best suited for specific universities or eligible for the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Scholarship Programmes. These tests, which are given to all K-12 graduates, are also used to benchmark the Kingdom against other countries and ensure that the education system is producing adequate outcomes. Certification exams for a wide range of professional graduates including teachers, engineers, judges and others are also being developed for the future. Another crucial role it plays is to identify which schools are performing poorly so they can be given special attention.

In addition to safeguarding curricula and academic standards, the government is looking to ensure the quality of its educators. Traditional and outdated rote memorisation techniques are now being phased out, and current teaching methodologies are being looked at with localisation of curricula in mind.

Higher Education

To keep up with the country’s rapidly growing youth demographic, Saudi Arabia’s higher education system has had to expand quickly in recent years. As of October 2012, there were 25 public universities and another nine private universities offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees. There are also more than 500 colleges offering a range of degrees in technical and vocational areas (see analysis).

For the 2009/10 academic year – the latest year for which the NCAHE and Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency have figures available – a total of 903,567 students were registered to attend higher education institutions within the Kingdom. These included 1565 doctorate students, 19,592 master’s students, 5024 at the higher diploma level, 127,148 at the intermediate diploma level and 749,238 bachelor’s degree students.

Female students were registered in slightly higher numbers overall (473,725 versus 429,842) due to their strong showing at the bachelor’s level, where they accounted for 57.7% of students. Male students accounted for the majority in all other categories, including master’s students and PhD candidates. These students were served by a total of 49,528 educators, with this breaking down into 2590 professors, 4365 associate professors, 14,375 assistant professors, 10,224 lecturers, 15,698 teaching assistants and 2276 staff.

While the competition between the public and private sectors can be fierce and has led to a cannibalisation of the market and a degradation of services elsewhere, in Saudi Arabia there is no shortage of students. In addition, expatriate students were barred from all public universities starting in August 2012, leaving more places open for Saudi nationals. Because of this, privately run institutions generally complement, not compete with, their public counterparts.

The competition for well-qualified professors, however, is another matter; it is heating up as the number of classrooms continues to grow. Another factor in this talent search is the fact that universities must also compete with private sector businesses, as corporations are eager to hire PhD graduates and other qualified staff to serve in upper-management roles.

Scientific Methodology

Higher education’s second role as an driver of research has also benefitted from public expenditure and private contributions. Due to the practical applications of such work and its potential spin-offs, much of it is carried out in collaboration with private firms. These partnerships have led to the establishment of a number of specialised research excellence centres (REC), which have targeted areas of focus, each with their own research chairs. Examples of these include the Desalination and Environmental Studies Research Centre at King Abdulaziz University and the Renewable Energy Research Centre at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.


In addition to research organisations spread throughout the Kingdom, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) serves as a central hub for scientific research and innovation policy for the country. Although in terms of administrative operation, it is an independent scientific organisation, KACST serves as both the Saudi Arabian national science agency and hosts its national laboratories. It is also responsible for the coordination and oversight of the sector and for making national policies related to science and technology (as seen in the National Comprehensive Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation). KACST is in charge of data collection, funding of external research and services such as the patent office.

Some of the research taking place at KACST mirrors that of the research chairs within the purview of energy, environment and agriculture, but also includes a number of high-tech fields the government is hoping to exploit in its drive to diversify the economy. These advanced industries include electronics, communications, and photonics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, space and aeronautics, advanced materials and other new technologies. Looking to bridge the gap between pure science and real world applications, KACST as well as other public and private institutions operate a number of business incubators and innovation centres; these are designed to take advantage of existing research and translate it into viable businesses that will generate employment opportunities.

Other efforts undertaken by the government to encourage scientific research and development include public recognition and cash prizes for achievements, such as publications in academic journals, in order to boost incentives and awareness of research efforts.

Global Education

Complementing the expansion of the domestic education system is the healthy contingent of Saudi nationals furthering their studies at universities abroad. This is not just an adventure for enthusiastic youth, but also a practical means of promoting knowledge transfer that can put Saudi Arabian graduates on equal footing with their fellow colleagues around the world. But unlike many students that attend universities in foreign countries only to stay and work there upon completion of their studies, the majority of students from the Kingdom choose to return to their home county after graduating.

The number of students taking advantage of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Scholarship Programme has increased significantly in the last five years, in line with the overall expansion of the sector. As of 2012 there were approximately 130,000 students studying abroad. Students specialise in a wide array of subjects ranging from intensive English classes to PhDs. This strong financial backing from the government has opened doors for students across the world, and this was evident in the international interest shown at a 2012 education fair in Riyadh, which attracted more than 300 universities from the US, Europe, Asia and Australia.

International Scholarships

Although the international scholarship programme has been around for decades, it has transformed and adapted in terms of its focus as educational and geopolitical norms have changed over time. The breakdown of academic destinations for students, which presently includes 22 countries, is in constant flux. The roster of participating countries is currently dominated by Europe, North America and Oceania, supplemented by Asian destinations such as China, Singapore, South Korea, India and Malaysia. The US is one of the primary destinations for international students, with some 66,000 learners coming from Saudi Arabia alone. This comes after it registered a low of around 1000 Saudi students in 2004 before visa restrictions were eased again in 2005.


In spite of ongoing efforts to increase the competitiveness of the graduates, a disconnect remains between providing improved educational options and getting graduates into the workforce. A host of complex social, cultural and economic reasons contribute to the Kingdom’s relatively high unemployment rate as compared to its rate economic growth; this was estimated to finish 2012 at 10.5% after reaching 11.0% in 2011, with previous years’ rates dipping into the single digits only once (9.8% in 2008) since 2005.

Because the labour market is highly segmented, nationals only account for about 10% of employees in the private sector and also constitute a low percentage of workers in lower-skill and manual-labour jobs. Secure employment and generous compensation packages for Saudi citizens in the public sector have done little to incentivise a leap to more competitive private corporations, leaving a void to be filled with skilled workers from other parts of the world in critical areas such as information technology and other knowledge-based and management positions.

On the other side, the cultural stigma associated with working menial jobs, combined with unemployment benefits of SR2000 ($533) per month, which often outweighs base wages in these sectors, also contributes to the problem. As a result, unemployment among expatriates within the Kingdom has remained under 2%, while it hovers around 10% for nationals.

Although the government has recently introduced demand-side measures to address employment in the form of a financial penalty on businesses not employing a certain number of nationals, lasting success in this arena will depend on the effectiveness of education programmes to equip future workers with the skills necessary to perform the jobs created by a more diverse, higher-value-added and knowledge-based economy.


Saudi Arabia’s booming export economy and record budget surpluses have provided a golden opportunity to reinvest these profits in the country’s future. The government has taken advantage of this situation by employing a multi-pronged approach to funding educational infrastructure and programmes. Measures to reform the curriculum, ensure quality control and create synergies between research, training and economic diversification should all combine to provide more and better options for students going forward. Funding equal to 20-25% of the government’s budget should go a long way towards alleviating the demand crunch brought on by the youth population boom, with bricks-and-mortar projects both planned and under way for new schools, colleges and universities. Increasing cooperation from the private sector in terms of expanded training programmes and collaborative research and development should also assist efforts to create more jobs outside of the oil and gas industry.

That being said, the real test for the sector will be how effectively these resources are used, and how well the education system is able to align what is taught in classrooms with the real-world skills required by employers. Given its achievement of internationally recognised accreditations and the continuous monitoring and improvement of the sector through quality control measures, there is a sense of optimism that the country can close both the skills gap among graduates and the teaching gap among the educators themselves.