The Magazine

Big Saudis on Campus

American universities can't solve the Kingdom's education problem.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Saudi Arabia's monarchy faces increasing problems, all of which lead back to a school system that indoctrinates the country's subjects in Wahhabism, the ultrafundamentalist and violent interpretation of Islam that is the country's official religion.

Rather than effectively addressing that sensitive issue, the Saudis have come up with a novel solution for the woes of their higher-education system: They want to send 15,000 Saudi college students to America--far more than studied here in a typical year before the atrocities of September 11, 2001, which were perpetrated by 19 men, 15 of whom were Saudi subjects.

Early in November, the latest in a series of high-level Saudi-government meetings on education proposed that an independent commission prepare yet another review of school curricula--the third since 9/11. Some Saudis have called for a complete restructuring of state education, and some even demanded that the system expose pupils to differing interpretations of Islam. Also this fall, top officials blasted the government for allowing mismanagement at Saudi universities, and blamed the rulers for the low standing of the Saudi system of higher education in worldwide assessments of educational achievement.

But scrutiny of Saudi education has not been limited to critics inside the kingdom. Before 9/11, Saudi students routinely benefited from the "Visa Express" program, under which entry to the United States was granted automatically, through travel agencies. Three of the 9/11 hijackers had used the "Visa Express" to get into the United States. Following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, new and demanding background checks, and provision for consistent monitoring of foreign students after they arrive in the United States, were made law.

Tightened U.S. controls have had an effect. On November 24, the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education announced it would postpone publishing the names of recipients of scholarships to foreign universities because of administrative obstacles in coordinating student visas from foreign embassies. In October, the Saudi daily Okaz declared that the FBI had broadened its watch over Saudi students in America--but that American universities want the Saudis back.

Saudi students in the United States have other problems beside Americans' feelings about them. Qenan al-Ghamdi, a writer for the Saudi daily Al-Watan, has accused the Saudi government of failing to pay fees for students in the United States, leading the education attaché at the Saudi embassy in Washington to deny the charge.

Nevertheless, the Saudis see a quick fix for their schooling woes in the departure of college students for the United States--in numbers almost three times higher than in more placid times. According to the Saudi Gazette, another media outlet in the kingdom, only 4,000 Saudis held U.S. educational visas in 2001, and the number fell to around 1,000 in 2004. On November 20, the Saudi-based Arab News reported cheerfully that at least 10,000 applicants should soon receive confirmation of their visas from U.S. diplomatic representatives.

Earlier in the year, Saudi higher education minister Khalid al-Anqari stated that scholarships to the United States would focus on modern, scientific training in fields useful for the contemporary employment market, such as medicine, computer science, engineering, and physics. The ministry also announced that it expected 100,000 Saudi high school graduates to apply for scholarships abroad.

In American reporting, the prospective influx of Saudi college students has been described as a joint effort by the Bush administration and King Abdullah to alleviate problems between the two societies by introducing Saudis to American values while also building up links between the future elites of the two countries. Some American schools are clearly excited by the lure of Saudi money. In mid-November, 20 American universities held an education fair at al-Khobar. Back in the American heartland, the University of Northern Iowa announced that it would host a Saudi-government-sponsored celebration of Saudi culture.

A similar example of new Saudi blandishments operates in the opposite direction. A branch of the Saudi petroleum monopoly, Aramco Services Institute--part of the historically anti-reformist Saudi establishment that opposes King Abdullah--has created a program with the Institute for International Education called "Educators to Saudi Arabia." The hosts recently took 25 American middle school instructors to the kingdom for a Communist-style indoctrination tour. One participant, Sara Darnell from Michigan, was, like other American women visiting Saudi territory, forced to wear the full body cover known as the abaya. An interview she gave her hometown paper concluded with an absurd--if not disturbing--declaration. She had met Saudi women who were said to be oppressed, but, according to her, "The [American] news media sometimes does not portray Saudi Arabia that well. . . . The women we spoke to didn't necessarily reflect those sentiments." Apparently Darnell did not notice or understand the meaning of the abaya she was compelled to wear.

The confidence gap between the United States and Saudi Arabia is not a product of any historic lack of Saudis studying at U.S. colleges, but of continued Saudi backing for violent jihadism. To suddenly encourage up to 15,000 Saudis to come to America to study seems destined only to clog or stymie any process of background and security checks. Sources in the U.S. government already express doubts that the vetting of Saudi students will proceed with the efficiency necessary to accommodate such an ambitious program.

Wouldn't it make more sense for King Abdullah to cut the links between his government and the Wahhabi ideology, to reform the kingdom's own political and educational systems first, to allow for religious liberty and free expression--and only then to ask that thousands of Saudis be accepted on trust into the U.S. higher education system? Even if they pass security examinations, Saudi students heading for America will still be products of the old, Wahhabi-based Saudi schools. Saudis already have plenty of ways to learn American values: via satellite television, the Internet, and reading. And younger members of the American elite would no doubt eagerly build relationships with their Saudi counterparts if the kingdom opened its borders to normal tourism.

For now, it seems absurd for the United States to bear the security burden of a risky immigration experiment involving a country whose status as a friend, ally, rival, or enemy seems as changeable as the desert sands.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.