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Volume 25, Number 4July/August 1974

In This Issue

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On Campus In Saudi Arabia

Written by John M. Munro
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

You'd never mistake the campus of the University of Riyadh for that of Harvard. Its buildings are drab and colorless in the blaze of the Saudi Arabian sun, and though there is a dash of green in a dusty park opposite the main library, it does little to soften the hard, angular contours of the monolithic concrete structures close by. Students wearing dark glasses and dressed in long white robes pad quietly across the sizzling tarmac, their voices drifting and lilting in the windless air. There is a distinct absence of pert, earnest, mini-skirted girls. There is no ivy, only a handful of trees, and few if any of the traditions of leisurely, liberal learning, free inquiry and academic independence so dear to the hearts and minds of Western educators. Nevertheless, Riyadh, as well as Saudi Arabia's two other new secular institutions of higher learning, represents a formidable change in the educational values of this ancient land, and is a portent of things to come.

As the heartland of Islam, Saudi Arabia naturally, and until very recently, saw no need for any change in the centuries-old concentration of its educational institutions on the study of the Koran to the exclusion of virtually everything else. In the mosques and madrasahs of Mecca, Medina and elsewhere, the life, sayings and actions of the Prophet, as revealed in the Koran and the Hadith and transmitted by his Companions (as-Sahaba) and their successors, were endlessly and lovingly told and retold for the benefit of those who sought a deeper understanding of Islamic belief. Instructors prescribed certain texts by famous authors and gave detailed expositions of their meaning. A student was expected to learn these texts and the instructor's commentary and if he were able to recite them to his teacher's satisfaction he was awarded a diploma, or ijazah, which entitled him to teach the text and the instructor's commentary to others. Thus, traditional Islamic instruction rested firmly on memorization rather than intellectual inquiry, respect for the past rather than a search for the new.

An example of this approach is still found in Saudi Arabia. The University of Medina, founded in 1961, is acknowledged throughout the Muslim world as an important center of Islamic schojarship and learning. Its 1,500 students are drawn everywhere from West Africa to Malaysia. Yet there is little doubt that it is highly conservative in approach. Even Muslim scholars have noted that few teachers there know any language other than Arabic, and that little attention is paid to recent Islamic scholarship in other parts of the Arab world, let alone in the West.

When, therefore, Saudi Arabia entered the world of economic and political activity, and saw the need for an educational system capable of preparing young Saudis for new responsibilities, government officials were concerned. They knew there was a pressing need to educate its own people to master the staggering complexities of the international petroleum industry and even prepare for a future when petroleum will play a lesser role in the nation. But could they, in providing that manpower, also avoid the disruptive effects which a rapid and massive infusion of modern Western-style education would most likely have in a state where traditional Islamic beliefs and practices remain strong? To put it another way, could they provide fit subjects for the kingdom of God as well as for the kingdom of man?

To a remarkable degree, the answer is yes, particularly in the new secular universities in Riyadh, Jiddah and Dhahran where the winds of change, if still gentle, are quickening into a stiff breeze.

Take the University of Riyadh. Founded in 1957 as a single Faculty of Arts with only nine teachers and 21 students, the University, of Riyadh has since added Faculties of Science, Commerce, Pharmacy, Agriculture, Engineering, Education and most recently Medicine, to become the largest university in the kingdom, with 300 teachers and an enrollment of approximately 6,000 students. The vast majority of students are Saudi, while the staff is an international mix of Saudis, other Arab nationals, Pakistanis, British and American, more than half of whom have earned doctorates from Western universities.

Of the new departments, Engineering and Medicine are generally regarded as the most up-to-date, in terms of both the quality of the teaching staff and the educational achievement of the students. Engineering offers specializations in civil, mechanical, electrical and architectural engineering and, additionally, a small research center. Medicine has a special agreement with the University of London, under which London has undertaken to provide Riyadh with professors, technical advice and external examiners during the next 10 to 15 years. Beginning with 35 students in 1969, the medical school enrollment has risen to 60 at present, and plans to double that figure in the future.

The university also has a main central library, which has 187,000 volumes, including 2,500 rare books and some 800 or so rare manuscripts. Additionally, each faculty has its own library, whose individual acquisition budgets hover around $282,000, well in excess of actual need. Admittedly, as a casual stroll through the stacks in the library of the Faculty of Arts will reveal, there are, for a university, a few anomalies. Many of the books are still in mint condition, suggesting that unassigned books are rarely read, and books on art are kept in a section marked "Restricted Access."

The Faculty of Arts also has two museums, one for folklore and the other for archeology. The latter, especially, though still in the process of renovation, gives great promise of developing an excellent collection of artifacts recording the history of Arabia from its prehistoric beginnings to the rise of Islam. Many of the artifacts have been donated, others have been acquired. Still more have come from the university's own archeological dig at Al Faw, under the direction of Professor A.R. Al-Ansary, a Leeds University-trained archeologist.

One of the major problems besetting the University of Riyadh is the fact that it has no single, unified campus, at present faculties being scattered about the suburbs. Having no common campus, the individual faculties have become virtually autonomous and self-supporting, providing facilities and staff to satisfy their separate needs rather than looking to other faculties to support them. Thus, medical school students receive instruction in chemistry, physics, biology and even English from teachers of their own faculty rather than from the Faculties of Science and Arts.

Looking to the future, however, in about 10 years time, when student enrollment will have risen to 15,000, a huge, new complex will have emerged out of the desert on the edge of the capital. Work begins next year, and in 1978 it is expected that the Faculty of Medicine will be the first to move in, the whole project costing a staggering $423 million, not including the cost of furnishings and equipment.

Furthermore, the University of Riyadh, the first of the new Saudi universities, is fully conscious of its important role and is determined to provide quality education suited to the kingdom's needs. In the professional faculties, especially, one experiences a sense of urgency. Meetings with the Faculties of Engineering and Medicine were brief and businesslike, the Techni-colored tea kettle deemed so essential to Saudi social occasions, circulated but once, and senior administrators everywhere gave the impression that they were interested in administrating rather than merely sitting behind their desks.

True, much needs to be done, particularly with regard to structure and approach, which until very recently scrupulously imitated the dated Egyptian lecture system. But the Riyadh administrators, already aware that the Egyptian style of education is perhaps not particularly well suited to the Saudi experience, are considering changes.

As Dr. Abdullah An-Nafi', an American-trained educational psychologist, now secretary general of the university, pointed out, "Egyptian universities are obliged to cope with large numbers, not all of whom are capable of benefiting from their higher educational experience. Confronted with classes of hundreds of students, professors are obliged to lecture impersonally on their material. At Riyadh, however, the situation is different. Admission to the university is more selective, especially in the Faculties of Engineering and Medicine, where a grade of 75 percent in the science tawjihiyyah, or school-leaving examination, is regarded as a minimum requirement. Therefore classes at Riyadh are small, enabling instructors to offer more individualized instruction. This means that a more flexible semester type of program can be introduced, closer supervision is feasible, and instead of students being judged in terms of their success on traumatic yearly examinations, they may be evaluated continuously, as is common in colleges and universities in the United States. Thus several faculties at Riyadh are considering the possibility of following the Faculty of Education, which has recently switched from the Egyptian plan to the American semester-credit system.

On the western side of the Arabian Peninsula, administrators at King 'Abd al-'Aziz University are also debating the relative merits of the Egyptian and American systems with regard to the needs of Saudi Arabia.

Founded in 1967 in the thriving Red Sea port of Jiddah, 'Abd al-'Aziz University began as a private institution. A group of wealthy businessmen, recognizing the need to provide educated manpower to run the local economy, banded together, took over a vacant house and recruited staff to teach students in Arts, Science, Commerce and Administration. Beginning with a handful of students, the university now has an enrollment of 2,500, a rate of growth so dramatic that the institution was inevitably drawn into the state higher educational system, recognizing as its ultimate authority, as does Riyadh, the Ministry of Education.

In the meantime, 'Abd al-'Aziz University had also been given administrative jurisdiction over the Shari'ah and Islamic Studies Faculty in Mecca, which was founded in 1947. The institution at Mecca, as would be expected, stresses the Islamic educational tradition, while the 'Abd al-'Aziz University approach reflects Western models—primarily the British university system. The result has been an interesting cross-cultural exchange, the results of which still cannot be predicted.

At present a new campus is being planned, or rather two new campuses within close proximity, one for men and the other for women, for in accordance with religious preferences, men and women still may not mix after the elementary educational level. This is not a serious problem with regard to pre-university education, but the chronic shortage of women university teachers means that higher education for women, which is itself a recent innovation, often lags behind that provided for men. At the University of Riyadh, for example, women are external students, attending lectures by way of closed-circuit TV in a room some distance away from the other buildings. By their side are telephones, which they may use to ask the lecturer questions, and in addition they may confer directly with specially appointed women tutors. They are not allowed direct access to the libraries, which means that there is no possibility for browsing and that they must call upon male relations for the borrowing of books or consulting reference works. At King 'Abd al-'Aziz, women's educational needs are perhaps more adequately satisfied; there are more women tutors and recent donations, including one from Aramco, have helped finance a new library especially for the women's campus.

At present there is no indication that Saudi Arabia's segregated educational policy is likely to change, but this does not mean that women are doomed to take second place in the kingdom's educational system. On the contrary, future development calls for the establishment of equal but separate facilities, as evidenced by King 'Abd al-'Aziz's plan to construct two contiguous campuses of almost identical design.

While King 'Abd al-'Aziz and Riyadh are still in the process of establishing their educational identities, the College of Petroleum and Minerals at Dhahran in the Eastern Province has reached a level of self-confident maturity which sets it apart from the kingdom's other higher educational institutions. Founded in 1963 with less than 100 students, the CPM is an autonomous institution, under the influential Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals, headed by now well known Shaikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who also serves as CPM's Chairman of the Board of Trustees. It offers programs in three general areas: Science, Engineering Science and Applied Engineering. The language of instruction is English, and while most of the students are Saudis, 50 come from other Arab countries, a larger proportion than at either King 'Abd al-'Aziz University or Riyadh, while the faculty is drawn from all over the world.

Indeed a glance down the 106 names on the list of its highly paid faculty, 46 of whom have earned doctorates, reveals how determinedly international CPM actually is. There are representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Canada, Pakistan, Morocco, France, Holland, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain and the United States, with degrees from such prestigious institutions as Imperial College in the University of London, M.I.T., Johns Hopkins, Texas A. and M., Harvard, Oxford, the University of California at Berkeley, Cambridge (England), Colorado School of Mines, Loughborough, Leiden, Munich, and Carnegie-Mellon. All the teaching assistants except one are Saudis, most of whom are expected to continue their studies for the doctorate at overseas universities, and many will no doubt return to join the CPM faculty. However, future planning calls for no more than 50 percent Saudi professors, the rest foreign nationals, half being appointed on a more or less permanent basis, the remainder on short-term contracts.

As might be expected in an institution which was aided during its early years by the Arabian American Oil Company—its compound is only a walk away—the dominant influence on the college is American. The majority of the professors hold their degrees from American universities and the semester-credit system, introduced into the college at the very beginning, is still in operation. The American concept of self-help is also more in evidence at CPM than at other Saudi universities, the students being encouraged to show as much independence and initiative as is compatible with the constraints imposed by the overriding paternalism of Saudi Arabian society. Sports are actively encouraged, CPM teams competing against other universities in the kingdom as well as in Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Great Britain, and the Student Union, to which all CPM students automatically belong, is a self-governing organization (under the guidance of the college administration), which is designed to encourage individual and group responsibility. Students live in blocks of 20 furnished, air-conditioned rooms enclosing gardens.

At present a magnificent, tastefully designed complex of classrooms, workshops, auditoriums (with facilities for simultaneous three-language translation), offices, an Olympic-size swimming pool, air-conditioned gymnasium, cafeteria, dining hall, medical center, outside amphitheater and mosque, is growing up on a site opposite the present campus. Designed by CPS, a Houston-based firm of American architects, the new facilities are functional without being austere, the architecture suggesting a delicate and meaningful balance between space-age technology and the Islamic traditions of the kingdom itself. Long, gracefully vaulted colonnades link the various facilities, and the landscaping, not yet completed, will feature large expanses of still water echoing the clean spaciousness of the interiors.

The lavishness of CPM's facilities is fortunately matched by the quality of education offered to its 1,000 students. Admission to the college is highly selective, being based on the college's own entrance examination, and after enrollment students are expected to meet educational standards similar to those of any good Western technical college or university. Regular attendance at class and laboratory sessions is required, and assignments necessitate extensive use of the library, whose 40,000 scientific and technical books and over 1,000 major technical journals make it one of the best equipped technical libraries in the Middle East. Additionally, students are taught to make use of the Data Processing Center, whose IBM 370/145 computer is the most sophisticated in the kingdom. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that CPM graduates have little difficulty in coping with advanced study in Great Britain or the United States, and it is especially gratifying to the college that two of its recent graduates are among the best-prepared doctoral candidates at M.I.T.

The CPM is undoubtedly the most modern of Saudi Arabia's higher educational institutions. Compared to King 'Abd al-'Aziz and Riyadh, the atmosphere is more informal and relaxed, almost trendy, and Western visitors would likely find themselves more at home in Dhahran than at any other university in the Arab world, with the possible and natural exceptions of the American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut (Aramco World, Mar.-Apr., 1972, and Mar.-Apr., 1966). Alone among Saudi male institutions the CPM employs women, faculty wives, who supervise the catering staff, work in the library and undertake various secretarial duties, clad in ankle-length maxi-dresses, their arms chastely covered with long sleeves. Walking across the campus, one may see as many students in hip-hugging, bell-bottom slacks and sports shirts as in the traditional Saudi thobe; in the cafeteria the radio is as likely to be tuned in to the Top Twenty on Radio Bahrain as Oum Koulsoum.

Yet, in spite of these signs of Western influence, the CPM is far from being an Arabian outpost of the permissive society. On the contrary, the college administration keeps a watchful, fatherly eye on the students' activities, not unlike that familiar to students at private and religious colleges and universities in Britain and America up until the 1960's. Students are allowed to visit neighboring towns only on weekends, and are required to sign in by 11 p.m. Nor are students allowed to backslide in their religious observances, being formally encouraged, in the words of the catalogue, "to avail themselves of the mosques on the campus for prayer, of the monthy lectures delivered in the college auditorium by reputable religious scholars, and of the large collection of books on Muslim thought available in the college library."

Indeed, by Western standards higher education in Saudi Arabia is determinedly paternalistic at all levels. Not only do administrators keep a careful watch on the students, and the political and religious authorities keep an eye on the universities; the government also provides generous financial aid for students, and finds them employment after graduation. For all Saudi nationals, who constitute over 95 percent of the students enrolled in the universities, tuition and books are free, and in addition there are heavily subsidized housing and meals, plus a generous allowance for living expenses. The latter varies, depending upon the institution and the discipline in which the student is enrolled, but generally runs to about $85 per month. After graduating, students are directed into suitable positions by an employment agency in Riyadh, run by the government. Those who do well are encouraged to take higher degrees in either the United States or Great Britain, the cost of their stay overseas being borne by the Saudi treasury.

In sum, Saudi Arabia has made an impressive start toward meeting the pressing technological needs of the future. But what of the equally pressing needs of Islam? Has the introduction of Western style education been disruptive? Or to put it another way, has the cybernetics manual subsumed the Holy Koran?

In a word, no. Although Saudi higher education is definitely geared to satisfy the needs of the developing economy, the moral and spiritual imperatives of Islam are also kept firmly in mind. At CPM, for example, administrators insist that while endeavoring to train students in engineering and science, the college also "derives a distinctive character from its being a technological university in the land of Islam," and feels "unreservedly committed to deepening and broadening the faith of its Muslim students, and to instilling in them an appreciation for the major contributions of their people to the world of mathematics and science."

Such a close relation between education and religion will strike many Western observers as an unworkable alliance—and some Westernized Saudis might cautiously wonder too. But this, in a nation such as Saudi Arabia, is not necessarily as unfortunate as it might seem. For although custom and authority undoubtedly impose restraints, respect for learning and scholarship, as long as it does not conflict with Koranic lore, is an essential feature of Islamic belief, and educators have always been held in high esteem throughout the Muslim world. Therefore, as long as Saudi higher education does not threaten traditional values, its present high rate of growth is likely to be sustained. Admittedly, the high priority placed by Western educators on free thought and individual intellectual development is unlikely to find widespread acceptance in Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future, but professional education, for example, may be expected to continue to develop, reaching a fairly high level of sophistication in a very short time.

There is, moreover, a positive value in the approach. CPM students are continuously reminded by a plaque on the wall of the administration building that the Prophet said: "God loves those who do their work properly;" and walking about the campuses of the three secular universities, one realizes how seriously this rather simplistic piece of Koranic wisdom is taken. Grave-faced young men pace slowly up and down in quiet areas, lips moving, committing to memory awesome stretches of textbook information; there is very little of the noisy, good-natured pushing and shoving one finds at other universities, or indeed anywhere else where young people congregate. There are no strikes, sit-ins, occupation of buildings or other manifestations of student power. There are no pantie-raids, no telephone-booth packing, no streaking. Higher education in Saudi Arabia is taken very seriously indeed.

This is in sharp contrast to other universities in the Arab world. In Lebanon students at both the National University and the American University are more frequently on strike than they are in class, and are showing an increasing inclination to take to the streets on behalf of various political causes. In Syria the ruling Baath party calls upon students to demonstrate in support of any issue which it feels needs a good show of public enthusiasm, while in Egypt students have assumed the self-appointed role of watchdog, emitting occasional growls whenever they believe the nation's only recognized political party is behaving in ways contrary to the public interest.

In short, thanks to almost limitless financial resources, enlightened educational leadership in government and in the universities themselves, and backed by the religious authorities, Saudi Arabia's institutions are rapidly becoming recognized as among the best in the Arab world, at least as far as professional education is concerned.

True, there is nothing in Saudi Arabia yet to match the American University of Beirut, nor is it likely that the spirit of free inquiry will extend to such texts of the intellectual left as Frantz Fanon, Mao Tse Tung and Herbert Marcuse. As for Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, their women's lib manifestoes are unlikely to be openly discussed, or even taken seriously, by either sex during the next decade. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia's conservative, authoritarian higher educational system has already produced a technical university of international standing, and few doubt that within the next 10 to 15 years Saudi Arabia will have other institutions of equal quality, eloquent symbols of this ancient land's emergence into the forefront of international affairs.

John Munro, former associate Dean of Arts and Sciences in the American University of Beirut, and author of eight books, writes regularly on university education for the Times, in London.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the July/August 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1974 images.