Toward a national education development paradigm in the Arab world: A comparative study of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, S Yamani

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Content: The Fletcher School Online Journal for issues related to Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization
Spring 2006
Toward a National Education Development Paradigm in the Arab World: A Comparative Study of Saudi Arabia and Qatar Sarah Yamani
Introduction In today's knowledge-crazed world, education is the cornerstone of human development. While it is doubtful that education can stand alone in achieving this goal, it is certainly one of the most instrumental factors. The acquisition of knowledge gives humans a sense of freedom--the power to think--that in turn becomes a means to develop other types of freedom, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of political and economic participation.1 Therefore, it is not surprising that many countries have identified education as one of the main priorities for developing their societies. More importantly, education is a universal concern for both developing and developed countries. Developing countries continually aspire to modernize their education systems, and developed countries pursue the adoption of the best education reforms and structure for their systems. In the end, all countries hope to gain from their education systems more effective citizens who can be productive participants, domestically and abroad, in markets and communities. To understand how modernization efforts in education can work in one country, one must look at the foundations of an education system, how that system has evolved, and whether it can modernize within its present context. This paper seeks to Sarah Yamani, Fletcher MALD 2005. Sarah Yamani is a native of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. She has worked within the UN system at United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. She is currently an education policy advisor with the RAND Corporation in Qatar, revising the country's national education regime.
explore such issues through a comparative case study of two countries in the Persian Gulf: Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. By examing the historical, cultural, economic and political contexts, this study aims to address why one country developed a comprehensive education reform system while the other chose a more cautious approach. Education Development and the Arab World Since September 11, 2001, the Arab world has been exposed to great scrutiny. Education has become a critical issue in defining a state of decline that exists in many Arab countries. While this part of the world is historically known as the cradle of scientific discovery and learning, it has largely failed to keep up. Even though Arab countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on education than any other developing region, the 2002 Arab Human Development Report stated that educational achievements in the Arab countries as a whole were still considered modest when compared to the rest of the world and even when compared to other developing countries.2 Moreover, the Report estimated that approximately 40 percent of adult Arabs are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women. While the 2002 Report emphasized the deficient qualitative nature of education systems in the Arab World, the 2003 Report highlighted that Arab countries, "lack[ed] an integrated vision of the education process and its objectives."3 Furthermore, the report stated that the quality of education excludes quantitative resources and depends more on organizational aspects of the educational process, or means of delivery and evaluation. In addition to the region's growing knowledge gap, amongst the educated elite, roughly one-fourth of all university graduates,
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2 Al Nakhlah
emigrate to other countries, creating a large brain drain.
The Evolution of the Saudi and Qatari Education Systems
Prior to modern education, Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, like their neighboring Gulf countries,
followed a traditional form of education called
Kuttab. Students in Kuttab schools learned through
Although women in Saudi Arabia remain
studying Quranic verses and religious principles. Beginning in the 1950s, a
prohibited from holding
more formal education system was adopted in
ministerial positions, a Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
woman has been recently appointed as
The men's education system in both countries was divided into three
dean of Qatar's Arab Open University
stages: the primary stage (six years), intermediate stage (three years), and
secondary stage (three
years). Girls' education was also included and
funded by each respective government.
Today, the education policy in Saudi Arabia
aims to promote the "belief in One God, Islam as
the way of life, and Muhammad as God's
Messenger."4 Similarly, and according to the
Qatari Ministry of Education, Qatar's education
policy builds on two notions: that Islam is Qatar's
national religion and that Qatar's constitution is the
country's source for laws and regulations.5
In Saudi Arabia, there are eight major
universities, where five of them accept both male
and female students. In Qatar, the major public
higher education institution is Qatar University,
which is currently undergoing major reform efforts
to meet its government's objectives of raising
academic qualifications and efficiency to confront
the forces of modern change.
Educational Reform Initiatives at the National Level
Saudi Arabia Over a year ago, the Interior Minister stated that the aim of the Saudi educational reform efforts is to enhance Islamic values and respect for the opinions of others. He denied reports that Saudi Arabia was under pressure from the United States to change the National curriculum. In addition, he said that the aim of Saudi education reform is to place more emphasis on scientific and technical
training to meet the future needs of the labor market.6 The need for higher education institutions in the country has been heightened since September 11, because many Saudi students have been rejected visas to study in the U.S. Additionally, the following reform initiatives were also adopted: · A new process of evaluating and assessing the Saudi school curriculum by eliminating any possibly offensive language that promotes hate and intolerance towards the West from Saudi textbooks. The government claims that only 5 percent (some reports say 15 percent) of the curriculum has been deemed inappropriate or disturbing and that the material has been `updated' and `modernized'.7 · The creation of student councils in public schools in an effort to educate young Saudis "about civic responsibilities and participatory governance".8 · Opening up private higher education to foreign investment, as well as encouraging the establishment of private higher education institutions. Recently, the Arab Open University (AOU) has opened a campus in Jeddah.9 The student body is comprised of 25,000 students in three undergraduate programs. The university offers correspondence courses in computer science, information technology, English language, business administration and teacher training. Dr. Maha Abdullah Orkubi was appointed Dean of the University on October 2003, the first Saudi woman to ever hold a senior academic position. · English language instruction: classes have been introduced to the sixth grade (instead of the seventh grade) in order to improve English skills at the intermediary and secondary school levels. This has been complemented with teacher-training programs to increase the amount of English teachers. · Teacher training programs: The government has introduced two pilot programs, one in Jeddah and the other in Riyadh, for training teachers on innovative teaching methods. · Expansion of technical and vocational education · Class Server Project: the Ministry of Education and Microsoft Arabia have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to bring improved Information, Computer and Communications Technologies (ICT) education to schools under Microsoft's `Partners in Learning' global initiative.10 The agreement
© The Fletcher School ­ Al Nakhlah ­ Tufts University
Spring 2006 ­ Sarah Yamani 3
includes teacher training, an e-learning gateway, a digital curriculum and data center. · For girls' education colleges, the government has launched pilot programs in distance learning through the Internet in an effort to empower professional women and university graduates in Saudi Arabia with requisite skills, including information technology. The government has also started a training program for academic staff on WebCT programs for e-learning. Qatar
Education for a New Era
In an effort to transform Qatari schools into a
world-class education system, the Qatar has
developed a groundbreaking education reform
initiative known as Education for a New Era. The
only one of its kind in the Arab world, this
initiative has been praised worldwide as a
revolutionary advance. Led by the Emir of Qatar,
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Education for
While Qatar was
a New Era (ENE) began in May 2001 and took a
supported internationally for giving autonomy to
critical step towards the success of the larger social, economic, and political reform efforts currently
independent schools, Saudi Arabia would
taking place in Qatar. The only short term objective of ENE is to
probably be watched carefully if it chose to
build a "modern, worldclass public school system" that will provide
do the same
the Qatari children with the "best education
possible."11 The long term
goal is to "prepare future generations to be
productive members of Qatari society and the
world at large."12 This transformation includes
changing the existing rigid, centralized, and low-
performing education system into a modern,
decentralized (self-managed) and effective one.
The two key elements of this reform initiative
are building new government-funded
`Independent Schools' and establishing annual
student assessment and surveys to help monitor
student learning and performance. Every
Independent School must establish curriculum
standards in Arabic, English, math, and science
while complying with periodic financial
Education for a New Era reflects four critical
principals that underlie the reform effort:
1. Autonomy: for schools and teachers in choosing their staff, teaching methods, and approaches in dealing with the needs of individual students and parents, all within a framework of international curriculum standards 2. Accountability: through a transparent Assessment system that would hold all school leaders, teachers and parents responsible for the success of students 3. Variety: in schooling alternatives, encouraging schools to engage in different types of instructional programs 4. Choice: for parents in selecting schools that they think best suits their children Supreme Education Council: Structure and Functions The organization responsible for overseeing the goals of Qatar's education reform initiative is the Supreme Education Council (SEC). This body was developed by Emiri decree 37 in November 2002 (six months after the inauguration of the plan) and has been instrumental in the reform's development and implementation process. The members of the SEC were all chosen from Qatar's top leaders in government, business, and academia. In addition to overseeing the progress of the reform effort, the SEC directs the work of three critical sub-bodies: the Education Institute (dealing with curriculum standards and teacher training), the Evaluation Institute, and the Higher Education Institute. The SEC is also working with the Ministry of Education to ensure the inclusion and establishment of new independent schools across the entire Qatari school system. Qatar has also requested assistance from international sources of expertise such as the RandQatar Policy Institute, as well as Australian and British institutions. It has also signed an agreement with a New Zealand-based education service provider to help mentor Qatari schools through a process of modernization and decentralization.13 The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Misnad, were not satisfied with the higher education system in Qatar for their children. Instead of sending them abroad, however, they dreamed of creating worldclass education close to home. They envisioned a university that would provide their children, as well as all Qataris, a full range of courses including information technology, Islamic Studies, business, medicine, and music. That vision turned into
© The Fletcher School ­ Al Nakhlah ­ Tufts University
4 Al Nakhlah
reality with the creation of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, deemed the most innovative education project ever seen in the Gulf. The Foundation was established by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in 1995 as a non-profit private organization aiming to support the development of quality Human Resources through centers of excellence in education, research, and technology. As noted by Sheikha Mozah, chairperson of the Foundation: "The sharing of knowledge, ideas and values is the noblest way to transcend barriers. In this sense, globalization is the architect, which constructs academic bridges across cultural and geographical landscapes."14 The Foundation defines its vision, philosophy, objectives, and mission as follows:15
· Visions: to develop and utilize human potential
· Philosophy: People are the most valuable asset
of a nation
· Objective: To upgrade scientific and artistic
capabilities and direct them
the good of society
· Mission: to foster centers of excellence which
develop people's abilities through investment
in human capital, innovative technology, state
of the art facilities, and partnerships with elite
organizations thus raising the competency of
people and the quality of life.
To achieve its objective of upgrading scientific and artistic capabilities for the good of society, and to accomplish its vision of developing "human potential," the Qatar Foundation has established a number of affiliated organs which are quasiindependent and linked through the Foundation in the fields of education, health, and community development. In addition, the Foundation's Education City campus, inaugurated in 2002, hosts leading U.S. colleges, educational organizations, and research centers. This integrated educational environment aims to encourage interaction between the existing educational and recreational facilities on-site, in addition to those envisaged within the new academic and medical areas of the University. Sheikha Mozah calls the Education City, "an engine of change for Qatar."16 Overall, Education City has formed a partnership with leading U.S. colleges, including Virginia Commonwealth University for arts degrees, Texas A&M University for engineering, Cornell's Weill Medical College, and Georgetown University, which joined in the fall of 2004. The American universities control admission standards, employ their own faculty, and determine the curriculum.
Despite the establishment of new
transnational partnerships, development of
Education City's 10 million square meter site is not
due to be completed until 2008. While there is no
accurate cost figure for the Foundation, some
estimates put the project at over $300 million.
Moreover, the government has made it clear that it
would allocate a significant portion of its A review was ordered
GDP to research and
specifically to Education
of all Saudi textbooks for evidence of
City. Other institutions at Education City include:
extremism; five percent was deemed
Qatar Academy, a school devoted to the promotion of critical thinking; the
questionable by authorities and
Program, which prepares
discarded. For example, some
graduates for enrollment in the Foundation's American universities; the Social Development
textbooks replaced the term jihad, a term defined by many as
Center, which mobilizes efforts in the service of society; and the Science
holy war, with tadhiya, a less incendiary word
and Technology Park, which aims to become the
meaning sacrifice
hub for technology
Research and Development. One of the most
important institutions at Education City is the
Rand-Qatar Policy Institute, which provides
research, technical development, and training for
analysts in the region. This in turn translates into
policy decisions and implementation efforts related
to education development.
Education City is constantly developing new
areas of expertise, inviting excellent institutions,
and creating an environment that is research
driven. One of its ongoing projects, for example, is
the Specialty Teaching Hospital, a modern medical
center devoted to training medical students with
the latest technology in medicine. Moreover, the
Foundation intends to offer liberal arts courses, as
well as graduate education. This futuristic
Education City seeks to make Qatar the education
center of the Middle East and one of the most
developed and knowledge-based societies in the
Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their Structural Differences
Even though both Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to follow the human capital theory that education leads to greater economic participation,
© The Fletcher School ­ Al Nakhlah ­ Tufts University
Spring 2006 ­ Sarah Yamani 5
they chose different paths-- or perhaps were led to
different paths­in developing their education
reform initiatives. While Qatar followed a
sweeping reform targeting public schools, Saudi
Arabia focused on "fixing" curriculum language,
vocational and technical training, and internet-
focused programs.
Overall, both countries initiated modern
education systems about the same time, shared
similar education policy objectives, and later
exercised the political will to reform their education
systems. Why, then, has
Since the conservative Saudi Arabia not opted for
religious establishment
a more comprehensive
controls the whole
initiative comparable to
Saudi educational
that of Qatar's Education for a New Era? The
system, from primary answer lies in the
to university level, the government cannot
structural differences--
demographic, economic,
simply undertake sweeping
and social--that exist between the two monarchies.
modernization efforts with regards to
Generally speaking, Saudi Arabia and Qatar share many socio-
education reform
economic and political attributes. They are both
absolute monarchies; both
acquire their wealth from oil and gas revenues;
both identify themselves as Muslim and Arab; and
both are conservative societies. In addition, both
countries historically aligned with the British
against Ottoman control, and today both are
important allies of the United States.
Structural and contextual differences,
however, also make each country very distinct:
First, Saudi Arabia holds a critical position among
Arab and Muslim states as the guardian of the holy
mosques in Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest
cities of Islam. Thus, Saudi Arabia will continue to
preserve its religious image and uphold the
principles of Islam. Additionally, the Saudi regime
has a deep relationship with the religious Wahhabi
institution that feeds its legitimacy. Any hasty
moves by the al-Sauds to disengage from the
Wahhabi religious right would be tantamount to
political suicide. And since the conservative
religious establishment controls the whole Saudi
educational system, from primary to university
level, the government cannot simply undertake
sweeping modernization efforts with regards to
education reform. In order to avoid internal
instability, the monarchy can only take careful
moderate steps that would not threaten the
conservative nature of its society.
Even though Qatar is also a Muslim country, it
has no religious institutional attachments that
dictate or influence its internal affairs. Therefore,
Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, has more flexibility to
introduce reform efforts such as the ambitious
Education for a New Era and the Qatar Foundation.
Importing U.S. universities, for example, has
created little to no internal opposition in the
country, despite having received some criticism
from conservative groups in Saudi Arabia.
In addition to Wahhabi institutional control
over the Saudi education system, the Saudi regime
is currently facing internal instability. In support of
Bin Laden's extremism, al-Qaeda factions have
engaged in violent and deadly suicide bombings
over the past two years, targeting Western
compounds in protest of the government's friendly
relations with the United States. This wave of
aggression has led the Saudi government to take
immediate measures to halt further terrorist
attacks. While Qatar experienced a suicide
bombing last year, instability in Saudi Arabia is
much more pronounced. Following Qatar's
footsteps with comprehensive reforms would only
worsen internal tensions.
Saudi Arabia has become infamous as the
home of 15 among the 19 hijackers in the
September 11 attacks. As a result, the Saudi
education system was
subjected to worldwide scrutiny. Reports claimed that the religious
Why, then, has Saudi Arabia not opted for a
curriculum, and in some extreme cases that Islam itself, preached hate,
more comprehensive educational reform
intolerance, and terrorism. initiative comparable to
Saudi officials such as the
that of Qatar's
denied such allegations: Education for a New
"If that was the case, all of the millions of Saudis who
Era? The answer lies in
were educated in the
the structural
system would be committing these acts."17 A review was ordered of
differences-- political, geographic,
all textbooks for evidence
of extremism; five percent
demographic, economic, and social--
authorities and discarded.
For example, some
that exist between the two monarchies
textbooks replaced the
term jihad, a term defined by many as holy war,
with tadhiya, a less incendiary word meaning
This reformed curriculum would not have
taken place were it not for the external pressures
facing the Saudi-Wahhabi education system.
© The Fletcher School ­ Al Nakhlah ­ Tufts University
6 Al Nakhlah
However, many Saudi officials have blamed
outsiders for unfairly criticizing the focus on
religion in the education system. In comparison,
Qatar has not faced the same external scrutiny and
therefore has been able to successfully craft its ENE
program around modern reforms and initiatives.
While Qatar was supported internationally for
giving autonomy to independent schools, Saudi
Even though Arab countries spend a higher percentage of
Arabia would probably be watched carefully if it chose to do the same. Social factors also contribute to the
GDP on education than any other developing
divergence of the two
systems. Both Saudi
region, the 2002 Arab Human Development
Arabia and Qatar are conservative societies. But while Saudi Arabia has
Report stated that educational
maintained conservative beliefs regarding women, Qatar has encouraged
achievements in the Arab countries as a
women to participate in the political, economic, and educational spheres.
whole were still
As mentioned above,
considered modest when compared to
Qatar not only opened the door for women to vote, but it has also permitted
other developing countries
women to run for Council positions and hold ministerial posts. Today, a
woman serves as Qatar's
Minister of Education. Additionally, out of the
SEC's seven board members, three are very
educated and influential Qatari women. The
Emir's consort, Sheikha Mozah, has also built a
distinguished image for herself through her efforts
in Education City, while becoming the face of
education reform efforts across the Arab World.
Although women in Saudi Arabia remain
prohibited from holding ministerial positions, a
woman has been appointed as dean of Qatar's
Arab Open University. Nevertheless, there are still
many conservative aspects inherent in Saudi
Arabia's religious society where men and women
are not permitted to interact in work areas,
permitting skeptics to question whether Saudi
Arabia is ready for a legitimate modernization in
education reform.
Another difference between the two countries
is population size. Saudi Arabia has approximately
24 million more inhabitants than Qatar. Moreover,
the GDP per capita in Qatar is much higher than
that of Saudi Arabia. Thus, Qatar has an economic
advantage over Saudi Arabia, which places it in a
better position to undertake comprehensive reform
initiatives at the national level. In other words,
Qatar can afford to use a big part of its government expenditure on education reform, while at the same time maintaining its other larger reform efforts. Country size is also an important characteristic to note when understanding either Qatar or Saudi Arabia's capability to adopt educational reforms. Qatar', for example, is approximately equal to two large cities in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, while Qatar's main city and capital is Doha, Saudi Arabia has 13 regions and at least five major cities. In devising a broad reform initiative, Saudi Arabia has to take into consideration that it would have to spend extensive amounts of capital, provide more teacher training and textbooks, and build more schools. In addition, a national educational reform initiative in Saudi Arabia would have to assume that not all its public schools are at the same stage of development. Therefore, a comprehensive plan would have to follow pilot programs. Conclusion The Saudi government has undoubtedly begun to implement modern educational reforms in the last few decades. The oil boom, for example, created a welfare society and transformed the nomadic nature of Saudi Arabia into an industrialized nation. Its education system, however, is not developing at a pace fast enough to adapt to the rapid changes currently taking place in the competitive global economy. While Saudi Arabia cannot mirror Qatar's Education for a New Era, Saudi education reform initiatives can and should follow Qatar's educational initiatives, vision, and progress. In undertaking reform, Saudi Arabia can only follow a gradual approach that reflects the needs of its society. At the same time, an educational system should keep up with the demands of globalization and the examples of more developed nations in their approach to education and knowledge-based societies. In the end, these will not be quick endeavors, and it will be necessary for governments and decision makers to think long-term. The rate of return for investing in human capital development is long and drawn out. However, principles such as those embodied within Education for a New Era autonomy, accountability, variety and choice could prove instrumental to Saudi Arabia, with its large geographic and socio-ethnic scope. Also, decentralization efforts, including transferring control from the national ministerial level to the school level, are important to give schools the chance to manage themselves and exercise autonomy while simultaneously introducing new
© The Fletcher School ­ Al Nakhlah ­ Tufts University
Spring 2006 ­ Sarah Yamani 7
levels of administrative efficiency and academic superiority.
The views and opinions expressed in articles are strictly the author's own, and do not necessarily represent those of Al Nakhlah, its Advisory and editorial boards, or the Program for Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization (SWAIC) at The Fletcher School.
© The Fletcher School ­ Al Nakhlah ­ Tufts University
8 Al Nakhlah 1 Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books (1999). 38-40. 2 Arab Human Development Report: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations. UNDP, 2002, 6 3 Arab Human Development Report: Building a Knowledge Society. UNDP, 2003, 54 4 Saudi Ministry of Education website: (accessed April 14, 2005) 5 Ministry of Education website: (accessed April 8, 2005) 6 "Educational Reform not under Foreign Pressure, Says Naif." Arab News, January 22, 2004. 7 Political and Economic Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2004). 8 Ibid, 6 9 The AOU has branches in Jordan, Bahrain, Lebanon and Egypt. 10 AME Info: (accessed April 14, 2005) 11 SEC website: 12 Dr. Sheikha: "Education Reform Critical to Qatar's Development," see SEC website 13 Qatar Widens NZ to Help Modernize System. See SEC website. 14 Qatar Foundation website (accessed April 13, 2005) 15 Qatar Foundation website (accessed April 13, 2005) 16 The Pearl Newsletter at 19 17 "Qatar Reshapes its Schools, Putting English over Islam: Conservatives See Reform as Extension of US Influence in Gulf." Washington Post Foreign Service. February 2, 2003, p A20. Online at Supreme Education Council website. © The Fletcher School ­ Al Nakhlah ­ Tufts University

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