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Saudi System Is the Problem

Authors: Rachel Bronson, Former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, and Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
May 7, 2005
Dallas Morning News


After the recent Crawford meeting between President Bush and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, it appears that the two countries have made great strides in mending frayed relations. The Saudis got some much-needed public hand-holding, and in return they agreed to take steps to lower long-term oil prices. The crown prince told a close adviser that "it wasn't a good meeting; it was a great meeting."

Lost in the blizzard of the media coverage that focused primarily on oil is the fact that the two leaders announced plans to increase the number of Saudi students studying in the U.S., expand military exchange programs that provide education to Saudi officers, and facilitate American travel to the kingdom. The president deserves credit for putting such seemingly banal issues on the bilateral agenda. Notwithstanding the price of oil, few issues are more important to American national security.

Today Saudi Arabia faces an education crisis. During our recent two-week visit to the kingdom, the need for educational reform arose repeatedly among parents, policymakers, journalists, religious clerics and business leaders. There is a grudging awareness that, at the extremes, the system produces terrorists. One former high-level government official described Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh as "a factory for terrorism."

There is also widespread acknowledgment that the system is failing to produce productive members of society. With 60 percent of Saudi Arabia's population under the age of 18, the kingdom cannot afford passivity in preparing the next generation.

That many Saudis now recognize the scope of their problem is evidenced by a growing interest in private education. At the primary and secondary levels, Saudi business interests are working with Western venture capitalists to set up for-profit alternatives to public education. Multinational consulting companies are quietly exploring opportunities for educational development. The kingdom itself has initiated pilot programs testing different models of public education.

Given local demand and international concern, Washington and Riyadh should capitalize on the Crawford meeting's window of opportunity and lay out commitments for educational reform. Education remains one of the few areas where the U.S. can credibly engage with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia's elite are mostly U.S.-educated, and America's educational institutions are still highly regarded.

As one U.S. State Department official recently noted, "America's outstanding academic institutions are as valuable to U.S. national security as is the protection of our borders." It is thus particularly troubling that the number of post 9-11 Saudi student visas to the U.S. declined by 80 percent and has yet to recover. Newly promised presidential attention will help reverse this trend.

In addition to increasing student visas, Washington should continue quietly expanding teach-the-teacher and teach-the-imam programs in the United States and promoting joint ventures like that between Duke University and Effat College, the private women's college in Jeddah.

In return, the crown prince must do more than send a few Saudi students and military officers to the U.S. One of the most important things the crown prince has done over the last two years is sponsor a series of "national dialogues" that have tackled the most pressing issues facing the kingdom: religious intolerance, the role of women and the status of Saudi youth. Although few concrete results have come from these discussions, they have given Saudis permission to engage on these highly sensitive topics in a way that was until recently unthinkable.

The crown prince should now insist that the fifth national dialogue, scheduled for December, confront head-on Saudi Arabia's education crisis in order to build a consensus for bold curriculum reform and set out a timeline with clear milestones.

Such milestones could include a commitment to convene a panel of educators with a firm mandate to implement an internationally accredited curriculum within two years; a shift away from teacher-centric rote memorization through the adoption of more analytic teaching methodologies; a significant budget - allocated from Saudi Arabia's oil revenue surplus this year - to introduce more technology into the classroom and distance learning programs to connect students with the rest of the world; and the creation of school-based parent-teacher councils to give parents more input into their children's education. These measures would address not only the content of what is being taught in Saudi schools, but also the context in which it is taught.

Given its demographics, Saudi Arabia cannot afford baby steps on this issue. Yet on issues of educational reform, the crown prince and his supporters will be fought tooth and nail by conservative elements within society - and the royal family - and therefore need to know that Washington and the American people are closely watching. Neither side can accept the conclusion of one discouraged Saudi journalist that "our education system has come through the storms unscathed and unchanged."

While issues of counterterrorism, Israeli-Palestinian peace and high oil prices can appear to have greater urgency, over the longer term nothing will benefit U.S.-Saudi relations more than tackling educational reform.

Unfortunately, the intense media focus on oil prices will only send the message back to the kingdom that Americans are no longer interested in reform. Has 9-11 receded so far in our memories that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is once again about nothing more than the price at the pump?

Rachel Bronson is a Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies and the author of the forthcoming "Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Relationship with Saudi Arabia." Isobel Coleman is Senior Fellow and Director of the U.S. Foreign Policy and Women program. Both work at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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