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Saudi Arabia’s education system has gone through an astonishing transformation. When the Kingdom was established in 1932, education was available to very few people; mostly the children of wealthy families living in the major cities.

Today, Saudi Arabia’s education system includes 25 public and 27 private universities, with more planned; some 30,000 schools; and a large number of colleges and other institutions. The system is open to all citizens, and provides students with free education, books and health services.

While the study of Islam remains at its core, the modern Saudi educational system also provides quality instruction in diverse fields of arts and sciences. This diversity helps the Kingdom prepare its citizens for life and work in a global economy.

Unpacking Vision 2030: Education & Research

There’s more to Vision 2030 than weaning the Kingdom off its oil dependence. Developed last year by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, Vision 2030 is a series of ambitious reform measures that goes far beyond the energy sector. The package paves the way for radical, deep-seated restructuring that will reinvigorate the Saudi economy, readying the Kingdom to face the challenges ahead, across all fields.

This of course includes the vital area of education. By developing a modern education system, Vision 2030 will equip our young population the skills and experience they need to ensure the future success of the Kingdom.


In order to build the institutional capacity and capabilities needed to achieve the ambitious goals of Vision 2030, the National Transformation Program 2020 was launched last year. The plan, which acts across 24 government bodies links the strategic objectives set out in the Vision 2030 to concrete interim targets for the year 2020, with annual progress reviews carried out to ensure the necessary advances are made.

Acknowledging how far we’ve come…

The Kingdom has come a long way in terms of education in recent decades.

Saudi Arabia has improved its literacy from 40% in 1972 up to almost 95% in 2012, and the figure continues to rise.

Higher education is Saudi Arabia is booming, with enrolment figures reaching 76.6%, comparable to other developed economies. There are currently 34 Government and private universities and nearly 2,000,000, both male and female students, in higher education.

The Kingdom has devoted over seven billion Saudi Riyals (€1.8bn) to its overseas scholarship program. There are currently over 200,000 Saudi students, male and female, studying at foreign higher education institutes in a wide variety of fields.

Saudi women make up 57% of the student body currently in higher education institutes within the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia ranks 25th overall in the world in terms of the balance between male and female students in higher education.

According to the 2014 Academic Ranking of World Universities, both King Abdulaziz University and King Saud University rank among the world’s top 500. The former has succeeded in attracting over 150 highly cited researchers from around the world as adjunct professors and the latter 15. Internationally recruited faculty are expected to undertake research in Saudi Arabia and collaborate with Saudi faculty members. This policy has allowed both universities to move up the field in international rankings, while boosting overall research output and building capacity in R&D.

As demonstrated in UNESCO’s latest science report, Saudi Arabia is making huge progress in terms of scientific research. The Kingdom excels amongst the Arab states in terms of number and intensity of publications and frequency of citations.


Scientific publication trends in the Arab States, 2005–2014 The Arab States, 2005–2014 (See UNESCO Science Report 2015)

…and what’s left to do.

With this level of momentum, the Kingdom is keen to harness these upward trends and make the country’s education an example of best practice, not just in the region, but globally. The national transformation programme 2020 sets out eight strategic objectives for the field of Education:

  • Provide education services for all student levels
  • Improve recruitment, training and development of teachers
  • Improve the learning environment to stimulate creativity and innovation
  • Improve curricula and teaching methods
  • Improve students’ values and core skills
  • Enhance the educational system’s capability to address national development requirements and to meet labour market demands
  • Develop creative financing methods and improve the educational system’s financial efficiency
  • Increase Private Sector Participation in the Education Sector

To these strategic goals are linked 20 individual Key Performance Indicators with targets to be met by the end of 2020, for instance:

  • Increasing the percentage of children enrolled in kindergarten (3 to 6 years) from 13% to 27.2%
  • Decreasing the percentage of illiteracy amongst Saudi adults from 5.32% to 2.5%
  • Increasing the number of professional development hours completed by teachers from 10 to 18 hours per year.

The plan to reshape education in the Kingdom is an ambitious one that will require discipline and rigour. But by following the measures set out in the National Transformation Plan 2020, Saudi Arabia will be guaranteeing the skills and opportunities required for the prosperity of its future generations.

Education is a requirement for every Muslim, both male and female. The Holy Qur’an and the Hadith [teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad] repeatedly emphasize the importance of learning.

In the centuries after the birth of Islam (632 AD), Muslim states established schools, universities and libraries that were unique in the world. Later on, the Islamic world became a centre for learning, making major contributions in the areas of astronomy, physics, art, philosophy, and medicine – a period known as the “Golden Age.”

Methods pioneered by Muslim scholars and scientists during the Golden Age became the foundation of modern sciences, and were taught in European universities up to the 18th century.

Formal primary education began in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. By 1945, King Abdulaziz bin Abdelrahman Al-Saud, the country’s founder, had begun an extensive program to establish schools in the Kingdom. Six years later, in 1951, the country had 226 schools with 29,887 students.

The first university, now known as King Saud University, was founded in Riyadh in 1957. In 1954, the Ministry of Education was established, followed by the Ministry of Higher Education in 1975.
The first government school for girls was built in 1964, and by the end of the 1990s girls’ schools had been established in every part of the Kingdom. Today, female students make up over half of the more than 6 million students currently enrolled in Saudi schools and universities.


Higher Education

Saudi Arabia began focusing on higher education when the country entered a new era of rapid development in the early 1970s.

In 1975, a separate Ministry of Higher Education was established. The Ministry launched a long-term plan to make sure that the Saudi educational system provided the highly skilled manpower the Kingdom needed to run its increasingly sophisticated economy.

One of the plan’s first objectives was to establish new institutions of higher education throughout the country and expand existing ones. By 2014, there were 25 major public universities, a large number of vocational institutes, and a growing number of private colleges.

Another objective was to establish undergraduate and postgraduate programs in most disciplines at these universities and colleges. As a result, Saudi students can now get degrees in almost any

field in the Kingdom, and only pursue specialized study abroad if necessary.

Currently, about 1 million students are enrolled at Saudi universities and colleges, compared to 7,000 in 1970 – a dramatic improvement. Of those, over half are female. Women attend all major universities, as well as numerous all-female colleges and private women’s universities.

Saudi students also have the opportunity to pursue specialized graduate and postgraduate degrees abroad. Supported by government scholarships, thousands of Saudi students enroll in universities outside the Kingdom.

The oldest university in the country is King Saud University in Riyadh. When it first opened in 1957, just nine instructors taught 21 students. Today, 65,000 students pursue degrees at the faculties of art, science, commerce, engineering, agriculture, medicine, dentistry, nursing, education, computer science and information science. The university offers doctorate programs in many fields and is particularly known for its engineering and medical schools.

The largest university in the Kingdom is King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, with over 70,000 students. It was founded privately in 1967 by a group of Saudi businessmen who believed strongly in the importance of education for national development. The university grew so rapidly that in 1971, its founders petitioned the government to take over its operation.

The Islamic University at Madinah, founded in 1961, is renowned as a center for Islamic studies, with graduates from over 100 countries.

Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh (founded in 1974) and Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah (1981) have highly regarded Islamic law, history and Arabic literature departments, in addition to programs in the arts and sciences.

Imam Muhammad bin Saud University offers programs in Islamic and Arabic studies at its branches in Japan, Indonesia, Mauritania, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates.

The Eastern Province’s King Faisal University, founded in 1975, offers a range of programs, including medicine and architecture, at its campus in Dammam. The Hofuf campus is especially respected for its outstanding agricultural and veterinary sciences programs, its experimental farms, and advanced research in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Other universities in Saudi Arabia include the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, one of the oldest (1964) and considered on par with the best in the world in that field; and Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University (founded in 2007) the world’s largest university for women with an enrollment of over 52,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

The King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) encourages students seeking to earn graduate degrees from Saudi Arabia and around the world to apply. Admission to KAUST is merit based. The University currently hosts students from over 60 countries and has received applications from students attending more than 220 universities around the world.