From kindergarten to university, Saudi's state education system has barely entered the modern age
Saudi teenager Abdulrahman Saeed lives in one of the richest countries in the world, but his prospects are poor, he blames his education, and it's not a situation that looks like changing soon.
"There is not enough in our curriculum," says Saeed, 16, who goes to an all-male state school in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. "It is just theoretical teaching, and there is no practice or guidance to prepare us for the job market."
Saeed wants to study physics but worries that his state high school is failing him. He says the curriculum is outdated, and teachers simply repeat what is written in text books without adding anything of practical value or discussions. Even if the teachers did do more than the basics, Saeed's class, at 32 students, is too big for him to get adequate attention. While children in Europe and Asia often start learning a language at five or six, Saudi students start learning English at 12. Much time is spent studying religion and completing exercises heavy with moral instruction. One task for eighth grade students: "Discuss the problem of staying up late, its causes, effects and cure."
In the face of rising unemployment, Saeed has taken parts of his education into his own hands. He learned how to use the internet on his own and sets himself research projects in his own time to try to make up for his school's shortcomings. "The subjects available are not enough to carry us to the career or specialisation that is needed for the job," he complains.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sits on more than a fifth of the globe's oil reserves and thanks to high oil prices it has almost tripled its foreign assets to more than $400bn since 2005. The region's thinkers had a profound influence on the evolving western science of the Middle Ages. But from kindergarten to university, its state education system has barely entered the modern age. Focused on religious and Arabic studies, it has long struggled to produce the scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers that Saudi needs.
High school literature, history and even science text books regularly quote Koranic verses. Employers complain that universities churn out graduates who are barely computer-literate and struggle with English. So frustrated are some students, they have taken to the streets in protest.
"Education in our country cannot be compared to education abroad," says Dina Faisal, mother of a 15-year old student in Jeddah. "We have a lack of sciences, physics, and biology. That is what is needed to push the country forward. There has been some change but it is far from being complete."
Six years ago, alarmed by how many young Saudis were out of work, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz launched an overhaul of state schools and universities. The effort is part of a raft of reforms designed to ease the influence of religious clerics, build a modern state and diversify the economy away from oil to create more jobs. The reforms are controversial, though, and nowhere more so than in education. Adding more science classes means scaling back on religion -- a direct challenge to the Wahhabi clerics who helped found the kingdom in 1932 and dominate vast parts of society.
"The Saudi education system is particularly difficult to reform because it is traditionally one of the main areas where the clerics have influence," says Jane Kinninmont at the Economist Intelligence Unit. "Asserting technocratic control over education may require a power struggle with the conservative clerics."
Many reform-minded Saudis were optimistic when Abdullah first announced the changes. Since then, though, the pace of reform has been slow. In the past few months the chance that Saudi's rulers will really take on the clerics has faded. King Abdullah, who is around 87, is recuperating in Morocco after two months of medical treatment in the United States.
The slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz has spent most of the past two years in Morocco and the United States because of an unspecified illness. Many Saudi observers believe Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, the veteran interior minister who has close ties to clerics and appears lukewarm on reform, has a good chance of taking over after his promotion to second deputy prime minister in 2009.
"Reform?" asks Simon Henderson, a Washington-based author of several studies on Saudi succession. "It has been moribund... since Nayef became second deputy prime minister. Abdullah has also lost energy for it."