Hanaa Al moaibed

On the history of Learning, Education Systems, and the Function of Reform in Saudi Arabia

Hanaa Almoaibed is an academic researcher focusing on youth transitions from education to the labour market. Hanaa is currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Education in UCL where she is researching how identity, culture, and socio-economic status is reflected in the choices students make in key transitional moments.

Photo taken by  Ahmed Mangri

Photo taken by Ahmed Mangri

What interests you about education, and how did you develop this interest?

I’m currently in the final stages of my PhD research at University College London’s Institute of Education, looking at youth transitions into technical and vocational education and training in Saudi Arabia. I’ve worked on youth initiatives in different contexts and capacities for the past 13 years, and was inspired by some of my later work with young people who were making decisions about their post-secondary opportunities.

I felt that there were so many gaps in what we know about this transition within Saudi Arabia, but more than anything I was frustrated by the way policy makers attempted to fill these knowledge gaps. Young people were often left out of the conversation about their current and future education, and when they were consulted, their stories were used anecdotally to illustrate the points of policy makers, rather than to shift the approach based on what young people had to say.

I was also frustrated by the silo mentality of different education stakeholders, and the wasted efforts and resources that ensue. While I believe that there is a genuine desire to look at young people in Saudi Arabia (and the GCC) as an opportunity for the future, and there are many amazing experts designing exciting projects to this measure, I hope to continue to be an advocate for youth voice, and that through the kind of research I do, these voices are heard by those who are responsible for creating opportunities for young people.

In your opinion, what are the knowledge gaps that currently exist in our understanding of the decisions students make after secondary school?

While I believe that the answer to this question is very complex, I think it can be simplified by saying that we look at students as differently-shaped pegs, and post-secondary opportunities are the holes they fit into. This is a very technical one-way street. What we don’t understand, in my opinion, is why students come in different “shapes,” if they fit into differently-shaped holes, and whether or not their shapes may change over time or circumstances. Let’s not forget that the “holes” are also changing with the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitization and automation.

We tend to look at opportunities in a very hierarchical manner (from highest ranking opportunity to no formal education or training) and think of students in a similar way (successful to failure). In fact, the variations in ability, interest, aspirations and knowledge often have to do with cultural and family background, in addition to a variety of structural factors (for instance, urban vs. rural home). At this point in time, I do not think we are looking at these variables or measuring them at all.

So let’s talk about how the education system became what it is now in the GCC. How did our education systems start and what context did they emerge in?

This is different for the different countries in the GCC, as all of them have different histories of education. However, the general story of the history of education in the GCC starts out the same (and on some of the countries’ ministries of education websites, it is still told this way): that education was informal, and delivered mainly in mosques (Katatib) focusing on Quranic recitation and religious teachings.

While this is generally true, there were also other subjects that were taught. There is a long history of travel for the sake of gaining knowledge and disseminating it, and an oral tradition of transferring this to others, but there is little mention of this in the history of education.

In some parts of the GCC, ‘formal’ schools were set up to deliver sciences, maths, etc., under the influence of the Ottomans and British. None of these schools were compulsory, and almost all were of them were costly. These geopolitical circumstances may be  the main reason formalized education resembled Western systems at the time, as all GCC countries (with the exception of Najd) were either formally or informally colonized or controlled by Great Britain or the Ottoman Empire, or others, at different points in time and, therefore, adopted similar formats.

There were several goals that this new education system hoped to accomplish. One of them was to build the oil economy, and many others were for unification, political stability and nation-building.

So the education systems served both an economic and a political purpose in general. How is this demonstrated in Saudi Arabia, as an example?

Today’s Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was unified and established in 1932, with a very small population living within its borders. There was a ‘Ministry of Knowledge’ that had already been established in 1925, and then later became the Ministry of Education. This ministry was responsible for setting a system and monitoring it, but schooling did not become compulsory until the 1960s, when it also expanded to include girls. By 1965, UNESCO estimates that the population was between 4 and 6 million, and that 95% of the working age population (above age 15) was illiterate and hadn’t received any ‘formal’ schooling.  Of course, that does not translate into an absence of knowledge, history and culture — something we often forget, avoid or neglect to celebrate.

However, as the oil industry grew in the 1960s, the newly-formed Saudi government began to realize massive revenues which required the support of external skills and expertise to utilize the profits and make the country more competitive globally.

Saudi Arabia’s economic growth therefore began to rely heavily on foreign labour, with an explicit plan to train, educate and equip Saudis to assume these roles in the future. Plans and strategies were put in place to adopt a compulsory education system. Foreign consultants put together a strategy that designed an education system with expertise from Egypt, mainly, and imported a system that was modelled after the British education system. Efforts were also made to merge this with existing structures of informal religious education that society was already accustomed to, so a significant amount of Islamic education was incorporated into the new system. This served as the foundation of today’s education system, and the approach of relying on consultants to change and reform it persists today as well.

Photo from the Kuwait Oil Company Archives (c. 1950)

Photo from the Kuwait Oil Company Archives (c. 1950)

How did these education systems, and the changes that were made to the informal, more familiar systems, affect society? What impact did it have on lifestyle?

Formalizing education resulted in many expected shifts. Families and individuals would move to urban centers to obtain state education. Families began to see the value of formal education in getting access to state employment and the benefits of regular income. And of course, with increased literacy comes improved livelihoods, as people can better access information related to their health, employment, rights, etc. In just 50 years we went from having very low literacy rates to nearly 99% of the population being literate. I personally remember being in primary school and buying a notebook to teach my grandmother the alphabet (a natural born educator, I suppose) as she had no formal education whatsoever, was completely illiterate and could not read numbers or letters. Her children all attended formal school, her son went to study engineering in the US and her three grandchildren (myself included) completed their  higher education abroad.


How about standardization of education in the GCC, and Saudi Arabia specifically? How does this impact the quality of education individuals receive, and society overall?

Generally speaking, the GCC state education systems are heavily standardized, with a  centralized curriculum that is set and governed by an official body. The relative small size of GCC countries makes standardizing national curriculums and implementing this relatively easy. Saudi Arabia, being much larger, also has a very standardized national curriculum, but due to the size of the country and the diversity of its population, the delivery of the standard curriculum varies considerably from one classroom to another, and more significantly region to region, depending on the location of the school and the makeup of the student body. Teachers and administrators ‘enact’ policy in different ways based on these variables, and on personal interpretations of policy.

Additionally, the political context and historical moment that information is delivered in influences the way students interpret and understand it. This makes standardization complicated. For instance, many of the messages about women’s status at home and women’s employment may have been readily acceptable in a time when less opportunities existed for women to work. As labour policies push to change this, the texts tend to become less relevant as time goes on, beginning first with skepticism in more urban centers, amongst some families, etc and eventually shifting the status quo (albeit with pockets of persisting resistance).  

Policy makers tend to look for functional solutions, and their technical approach to social development means that people are viewed as inputs in the economy rather than social agents. In looking at young people as an input, you tend to standardize your approach to education. This theory is known as “human capital theory”: the more is invested in the human (in the form of education and training), the more productive they will be. As the state sets the standards of what these investments look like, those who access the ‘right’ kind of education will have more opportunities available to them. So there is often some upward mobility when education becomes available in places it previously had not been, mainly due to the employment opportunities that become available as a result. For example, Saudi Arabia has a very specific list of job titles that categorize people into specific roles. If, for instance, someone pursues education in a different field (like international relations), the value of that investment is often lower than an investment in a more traditional field, such as engineering or medicine.

In reality, standardized education often leaves some students behind. For one, the resources that some students have access to due to their socio-economic background can lead to higher achievement in the classroom, which in turn gives already privileged students more opportunities because they tend to perform better. Only 10% of the Saudi population pursue private education at the primary/secondary level. Private education often means that they learn literacy and computing skills earlier and develop more advanced skills that give them access to higher positions and set them up for faster job progression and salary increases. They will most likely have more future opportunities than those who have access to fewer resources and “social capital.” These “less privileged” students may then be labeled as ‘failures’ and not given the support that they need to put their personal capabilities to better use.

Additionally, the opinions, beliefs and backgrounds of policy makers and curriculum developers becomes (often invisibly) embedded in the education policy. While much of the system was designed by consultants, the curriculum has evolved and texts are written and reviewed by committees that tend to be male-dominated (or exclusively male), and who are part of the same network and have had very similar educational backgrounds. These ideas may not resonate with some students and inevitably put them at a disadvantage. Indeed, many social inequalities are replicated within the classroom in this way, and without explicit policies (which aren’t always effective) built into the system, this phenomenon will only be perpetuated.

Photo from Kuwait Oil Company Archives (c. 1950)

Photo from Kuwait Oil Company Archives (c. 1950)

You mentioned earlier that there are forms of knowledge, such as history and culture, that we “forget, avoid, or neglect to celebrate.” What impact does that have on our society and the quality of our education? Do we have an “education culture and consciousness” in the Khaleej, and how can we develop one?

Today, education reformers focus on two things: privatizing education and moving into the new digital age. The idea for privatization stems from an inherent belief that the state system is broken and cannot be fixed, and this extends into the digitization where we believe that teachers are incapable of taking our children into the 21st century equipped with the necessary skills. In both cases, those driving these pushes are , certain that they can fix something that is “broken.” The approach is very prescriptive, and in my opinion, patronizing. The solutions are very seldomly based on empirical local needs, wants, and aspirations. I think that our problem is we are obsessed with the future, with development, with modernity, that we forget that there is a wealth of fascinating local knowledge (albeit with political influences and superimposed curriculum). We can develop an education culture and consciousness by listening more closely to everyone, especially students, about how they connect to their local and global worlds, and how we can foster these aspirations and turn that into positive energy for growth and development.