The Impact of Saudi Scholarship Program

Since the turn of the century, there have been numerous exchanges between various civilizations, made possible by migration between continents. The necessity to pursue higher education in the industrialized nations found on the continents of America, Europe, Australia, and Asia has sparked these movements. The situation has been the same for Saudi students who have flown to these nations on government-sponsored scholarships to pursue higher education prospects. More than 200,000 Saudi students are thought to be pursuing higher education abroad at this time (Alamri, 2011). The number of students that travel and adapt to different cultures and environment is likely to cause socio-political change. The paper aims to study the attitude of the students, their values, and beliefs in the context of the interaction caused by the scholarships. The paper will also focus on the phenomenon of moving from a segregated environment regarding gender to an environment of mixed gender.

Impact of the Saudi Scholarship Program


The government of Saudi has been sending a large number of students to other countries with the numbers increasing annually at the rate of 45% between the years 2005 and 2013. More than 200,000 students are studying abroad, and the majority of them are in North America and Europe. These students are beneficiaries of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz scholarship that is a fully funded by the government scholarship and is managed by the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi(Sherry, Thomas & Chui,2010). The program has attracted a large number of students across Saudi who are in high school as well as those in higher levels of learning. The scholarship has become popular with the Saudi society, especially with the parents whose children have benefited.

The program came to the rescue of the Saudi students who could not access any fully funded government scholarships with ease. Before the launch of the program, there were no proper procedures on how one could access a scholarship, conditions, or standards for one to qualify for one. The situation seemed even harder for students in 1980s because they could not apply for any overseas government scholarships directly considering the scholarships were only authorized through the public ministries and government institutions. During that time, one would get the scholarship easily only if his or her family had connections with a royal family or belonged to one of the royal families. However, the program has made scholarships more accessible to any student who is willing and qualified to study abroad.

The flexibility of the budget that the government provides for the program has enabled more students to be sent to the overseas universities to pursue higher education. The thousands of Saudi students located in different continents form the basis of this study, which tries to study the impact of the program beyond academics. The purpose of the research is to answer the question of how the Saudi scholarship program created an imbalance in students’ cultural and national identity. The paper will also try to relate how the theories of Appadurai and Giddensrelate to the exposure that these students get when they are offered the scholarships.

Background of the Program

King Abdullah Scholarship program (KASP) was founded in the year 2004 by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz as part of the bilateral agreement that the king had with the then U.S President George Bush (Taylor & Albasri, 2014). The aim of the two leaders was to strengthen the relationship between the two countries by increasing the number of Saudi students in the US. The program was seen as one of the best ways that would send students to the USA. Through the years, the program expanded and allowed more students who qualified to travel to other countries that are considered to have progressive education systems such as Australia, South Korea, UK, and Canada. The program offers the opportunity to students who are willing to pursue undergraduate and postgraduate programs. The distribution of the courses to be pursued is according to the national demand for personnel in both the public and private sectors of Saudi.

The objective of the program is to prepare the Saudi human resources to be ready to compete on an international scale in the job market. The scholarship eligibility has been made to be a fair process to all the students who are willing to pursue higher education overseas. One can apply for the scholarship while studying abroad or when still pursuing their education within the borders of Saudi. The program, which is fully funded by the government, covers the following expenses:

1. Tuition fee.

2. Monthly upkeep expenses.

3. Health insurance for both the students and their dependents.

4. Fee for other training such as language and driving.

5. Bench fees.









































Figure 1: Total Saudi Students Overseas Benefiting from the Program (Taylor & Albasri, 2014).

As shown in the table above the number of students that have been enrolling for the program has been continuously increasing over the years. An example is the number of students who enrolled in the program when it was launched in 2004; the number has increased significantly to more than 13 times the initial number of the students who enrolled for it. It is estimated that the program will attract more students as the government budget on the program is increasing each year. The annual growth rate between 2005 and 2012 was estimated to be 38%. However, the period that experienced the highest number of students traveling abroad through the program was between 2006 and 2007 during which the growth rate was recorded at 137%. It indicated the high number of Saudi students who were eager to travel abroad to seek higher education at that time (Taylor &Albasri, 2014).

The undergraduate students registered the highest number of students under the program, constituting about 60% of the total number of students who are beneficiaries of the program. The postgraduate students constitute around 30% of the students who are beneficiaries of the program. The discipline of management and business has attracted the highest number of these students, and they make up the largest number of students under this program with about 30%. Other programs such as Medicine and Engineering are about 20% and 25% respectively. The 5% belongs to the social sciences, which makes the discipline the lowest number of enrolment (Taylor &Albasri, 2014).

In terms of gender, female make about 25% of the total number of students in the program (Taylor & Albasri, 2014). The percentage is considered to be high, keeping in mind that the female students had been given more strict conditions for one to qualify for the scholarship. Female students are required to have a male counterpart who they could live together in the abroad country. The conditions put for the women proved to be difficult for them to convince their families to get a male counterpart as guardian. Therefore, for the women who made it to the overseas countries, it was considered a good step towards encouraging others to take the bold step. The initial step made by the women to take higher education in other countries led to confidence from most of the Saudi women to move out and study in other countries.

Theoretical Framework

To study any socio-political attitude one requires sociological concepts to lay the foundation for a strong scientific background on the matter at hand. The transformation of the students, while they are abroad, can be studied more closely by considering the theories of Appuari and Giddens. The theories will relate and give a clear picture of how certain social-political attitudes change after the students move out of their motherland to seek education in these overseas countries. The theories will also try to explain how these changes may influence the Saudi society as a whole. However, it is important that the clear description of the life of a Saudi student in overseas countries be reviewed.

Giddens Theory

Antony Giddens theory, the consequences of modernity offer insight on how the change of environment may influence transformation. “As a first approximation, let us simply say the following: 'modernity' refers to modes of social life or organization which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence”(Giddens, 2015). Giddens (2015) argues that instead of the world moving to a period of post-modernity, the world is moving to a higher modernity. By this, Giddens means that the consequences of modernity are gaining more influence on the lives of most of the people in the society. The author claims that the effects of modernity are becoming highly radicalized and universalized.

Giddens concentrates on security verse dangers and trust versus risk when trying to develop a new characterization of nature of modernity. According to Giddens (2015), modernity is a double-edged phenomenon. The author claims that the development that has been experienced in the social institutions today has offered humans more opportunities for them to enjoy secure living as compared to the pre-modern system. Giddens (2015) asserts that change of environment affects the personality and attitudes of an individual after some time. The theory gives a detail explanation that can be related to how the Saudi international students experience life after traveling to the overseas and how the interaction of culture change their way of thinking, belief, lifestyles among many other socio-political changes that take place. The changes in the life of these students caused a lifetime influence in their life and had an effect on their thoughts and believe as they went back to Saudi.

Literature Review of Overseas Saudi Students

Different studies have tried to explain the aspects of studying abroad. These aspects include culture difference, security of the student, rights of the student, social adjustment, and culture shock among many other issues that affect an international student. Researchers have studied all these differently. A recent study that focused on the Saudi student in Australia revealed a number of things about their lifestyle and culture. Some of the things that have been discussed below are some of the findings of that research:

Saudi male students have no respect for their women counterparts. The male students believe that they are more superior to women and should be given more respect as compared to their female counterparts (Fallon & Bycroft, 2009). According to the research, this was not, only students’ beliefs but rather a cultural practice that originates from Saudi. The Saudi cultural practices reserve a reduced role for women in the society as compared to men. They believe that men should be the ones who are in charge of the women. Men demanded more respect as compared to the Saudi women who seem submissive to their men. The same could be said of the Saudi international students who were in Australia (Alhazmi & Nyland, 2010). The contrast that existed between these students who were now living in a society that championed for equal rights of both male and female engineered the change in their social-cultural life.

Gender segregation in Saudi is a cultural norm that is practiced both in the public and private institutions of the country. It is also practiced in the schools, universities and even in the entertainment places. The system in place in Saudi limits the interaction of gender in the education sector. The kingdom state has adopted a system that only allows a single –sex institutions of learning in the country. The system cuts across both the private and public institutions of learning and even the religious schools. KAUST University, which was set up for international research, is the only higher learning institution that allows students of both genders in the University. However, due to the cultural practices in Saudi Arabia, the University has come up against frequent criticism from the members of the public. Most of the restaurants in Saudi have two sections for men and the other one that belongs to families that visit the restaurant. Other restaurants cater for men only, and there is no a single one that caters from the women. Historically the practice is common in most of the Arab countries which still have a traditional view of the role of women in the society. The life of the Saudis is also divided into two in terms of gender; the business world and public life belong to the man while the private world is for the women.

Saudi students believe that culturally it is necessary for the male to take care of his or her family and all the dependents that completely depend on him including the women. Therefore, this means that the Saudi men have a higher responsibility and concern for their wives as compared to male from other cultures (Hilal, Scott, & Maadad, 2015). There also been positive claims about the Saudi students with some claiming that they are respectful, honest, and caring. It is clear that most of the studies concluded that the Saudi international students have changed through the exposure especially their socio-cultural. Therefore, the need to cry out a more detailed research to add to the findings of the previous researchers was necessary.

Unlike the life back at home, the international Saudi students lived in a society that had restaurants that were shared by both the male and female. The mains issue of concern for the international students was the security and their experience in the oversea countries. The students faced the challenge of language barriers as it made it difficult for them to communicate. Saudis are used to communicating in Arab, and few knew how to communicate in proper English or other international languages such as Chinese. The difficulty of also fitting into the new system of education and environment proved to be a challenge to most of them (Razek & Coyner, 2013).

As Giddens(2015) suggests in his theory, the change of environment brings about trust and risk. The Saudi students found it difficult to trust anyone who was not their fellow Saudis when they started to live in the overseas countries. According to research, most of the Saudi students felt scared to live in a gender mixed society. However, this changed as they got used to living with people of different cultures. Their security was also an issue, but with time, the Saudi students adapted to the life abroad and did not feel insecure again. In fact, as they got used to their fellow students from other cultures they become more secure (Forbes-Mewett & Nyland, 2008).

The Cultural identity of the students changed over time, especially how they believed about themselves. The Saudi cultural identity is divided into three groups, which are religious identity, national identity, and the tribal identity. The Saudis value the religious identity the most compared to the others. In Saudi Arabia, authorities are not complete if it does not support Islam in its Wahhabi version. Religious identity is considered part of the national identity, and so the two are intertwined. The students believed that they are Muslims and could only be directed by the laws of Allah. However, their perceptions changed as they moved to countries such as Canada and USA where the Christians make up the majority of the population. The governments of these countries were not necessarily identified with a particular religion, as it is the case in Saudi Arabia. To some of the students, this was difficult to adapt and brought the imbalance of cultural identity, especially religious identity (Baroni, 2007).

The mode of dressing for them was also an issue. In most Islam communities, the women are used to covering up their entire body with clothes such as Kurtis, jilbabs, and the hijabs. The way of dressing is compulsory for the women to wear as Islam demands. When the students moved abroad, they lived in societies that did not restrict anyone how to where and in fact most of the people wear modern clothes, which are short. These students found it challenging because to them wearing clothes that expose some parts of the body is a sin. They believe in the teachings of the Quran that the adultery if the eye is when one sets his or her sights on the forbidden things. They students also believed that different sexes were supposed to be separated to prevent them from committing adultery.

Living in an environment that allows gender to mix created the imbalance or the students that they were not used. However, this also changed them in a positive way especially the female students who could not make any decisions for themselves back at home. Most the females were made to marry certain individuals who could be deemed suitable by the parents. The case changed for these students, as they were able to make their decisions concerning their rules and male partners. The students could now know how to deal directly with men unlike when they were made to be submissive to men. The challenges arose when they went back to Saudi as they had adopted a different kind of life that advocates independence of an individual. When they were back in Saudi, it becomes difficult to reconnect with the practices there (Poyrazli & Grahame, 2007). It became an issue of trying to balance the new life that they have experienced and the cultural practices back home. The scarceness that these students felt as they started life in these countries became a challenge that helped them have firsts hand experience. Most of the female students have confessed to having known how to make their rules that men cannot cross out of the experience, which was not the case initially. The students have become more mature and known of how to deal with life issues in a more direct way. Life in the overseas countries has made them responsible as compared to how they were when in Saudi. The fear that they had and the hesitation that they depicted in the early day had subsided. Confidence has increased among the female Saudi students as they have known their potential cannot be limited (York, Rosa, & Dietz, 2003).

Saudi female students were used to their private life at home, which according to the cultural practices; women role was mainly to stay at home (Long, 2005). They were also used to depending on their brothers and father completely on everything including phone bill. However, when they moved to abroad, they changed their belief that they are only reserved to be at homes. Most of them took jobs in different companies to earn extra income to sustain their living while studying. The female students also bought their won vehicles and could drive themselves, filing the government documents on their own, buying their houses among a chain of things that they could not on their own in Saudi. Therefore, the students would find it difficult to return to the initial person they were when they return to Saudi, but again the need to conform to the cultural practices back home is an issue.

Estimations reveal that by the year 2020 a majority of the 200,000 students that are studying abroad will have gone back home (Elyas & Picard, 2010). Considering that these students experiences in overseas have affected their thinking on women rights, civil and human rights, and religious tolerances, it will be a challenge for the society back in Saudi to accommodate back these students. Their independent mind will also be an issue of concern to the government and society as a whole. The two theories suggest that living in a different environment that is modern and civilized for some time trying to adapt to the different political and social system of the new environment will affect the social values, personality, and social norms of an individual. The majority of the Saudi students are more satisfied with the social-political position of their host countries as compared to Saudi. The dissatisfaction increases when they return to Saudi where the practices do not allow one to have that much independence of his or her social life. These students may end up challenging the position of Saudi society on some of the issues that they have changed (Gauntlett, 2006).

The participation of women in politics became an issue of concern, as the students believed that women had the right to seek a political office and have influence in the society. The students differed with their fellow Saudis who remained at home on this issue with most of them embarrassing a democratic approach to things while the Saudis remained conservatives. It brought the imbalance in the Saudi society as the new intellectuals come up with different ideas on how the society should be set up in line with their new experience of modernity. They also believe in freedom of speech for all the people as well as gender equality which will help in the transformation of the Saudi society (Nieto & Zoller Booth, 2010). The English language has also been used in the Saudi society more than it was used in the past. The language has been impressed even with some of the companies requiring one to be English literate to be employed unlike when only the Arabic language was required (Elyas & Picard, 2010).


The program has offered students scholarships that have ended up affecting both their academic and social lives. The political lives of the students have also been affected. The students think in a progressive way as opposed to when they were in Saudi. The students have embraced part of the western culture, which is considered more modern and civilized. They have become so tolerant that they can spend time with an individual of the opposite sex without fear that they would be tempted. Religiously the students have become more tolerant of the other religions and tried to live in harmony, unlike in Saudi whereby Islam is the only religion that is being practiced. When one raises an opinion that differs from the Islamic way of life, the person is considered an outsider in the Saudi society. However, with the movement of the students to other countries, it has enabled the Saudi society to transform and accept that women deserve a better role in the society. Although the changes have not been massive, it is expected that in future the society will recognize the importance of gender equality. It is also expected that apart from gender equality the society in Saudi will be more tolerant to religion.


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