Shifting Sands: Political and economic changes in Saudi Arabia and higher education in the Middle East
In my book, International Student Mobility and the New World Disorder, I make the case for how political and economic changes occurring throughout the world have, and will continue to have, an impact on international higher education recruitment and enrollment. This article will examine some of the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia and the current state of higher education in the Middle East.
“Where Saudi Arabia goes, the GCC follows. Where the GCC goes, the Arab world follows. Where the Arab world goes, the Muslim world follows.”
Radical reforms within Saudi Arabia are changing the societal norms that have governed the country and its people for decades. Last year the mutawaeen (secret police) disappeared from the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah, a part of a larger policy of modernizing the Saudi state by the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). As part of the crown prince’s set of reforms known as “Vision 2030,” women were given the right to drive cars and the country’s first new public cinema since 1979 opened in April 2018 with men and women sitting together. The late King Abdullah’s motto was yawash, yawash, slowly, slowly. Muhammad bin Salman’s motto seems to be fly high and fast.
Political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla describes the Arab world as living what he calls “the Gulf moment.” And Riyadh is the center.
Saudi Arabia with its recent geopolitical outreach to both the United States and Russia is clearly attempting to align itself with countries that have the potential to help the country meet its strategic economic and military goals. In 2017 Saudi Arabia became the highest military spender in the world after the United States and China.
Economic and social changes in Saudi Arabia will be governed by the price of crude oil. Current crude prices are $80 a barrel, significantly lower than their peak of $146 a decade ago. Given a budget deficit of 9 percent last year, and plans for record expenditures this year, Saudi Arabia needs oil prices to rise to $87 a barrel just to break even. In an attempt to increase revenue, the government in Riyadh has imposed a 5% value-added tax on tobacco and sweetened drinks and has cut fuel and electricity subsidies.
The sands in the Middle East are shifting and higher education in the region will not be immune to the changes sweeping across the region.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia collectively have spent billions of dollars importing higher education institutions to the region and have created educational hubs, attracting thousands of students each year to both undergraduate and graduate programs.
The United Arab Emirates overtook the United Kingdom to become the third-leading destination for Arab students studying abroad behind France and the United States. Collectively, the top 10 Middle Eastern senders, which include Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have sent more than 40,000 students to the United Arab Emirates for study. The Emirates also attracts significant numbers of students from Kuwait, Lebanon and Nigeria. According to a report published by the Observatory on Borderless Education, the United Arab Emirates is the second leading country for international branch campuses behind China.
In October 2018, The UAE eased student visa regulations, making it easier for students to secure long-term residence and employment after graduation.
The governments of the Middle East are determined to continue to play a major role in future international student mobility and international collaborations. Innovation and creativity are the hallmarks of many of the region’s colleges and universities. And the apparent shift of international students’ enrollments from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean can only benefit educational institutions in the Middle East.
Final note: This article was written prior to the murder of Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi, in Turkey. Since November, 2018, worldwide condemnation of the murder has altered public opinion about the Crown Prince, his stalled internal reforms, the Saudi-sponsored war in Yemen and blockade of Qatar.
The sands have once again shifted in the Middle East.