Educational Challenges in Saudi Arabia

Written by Matilde Ribetti

The importance of education

Every individual has a right to education as it is the cornerstone of human progress. The ancient Greeks, who created the notion paideia, namely the holistic formation of the pais (young man) and the Romans, who eventually translated it into humanitas, were already aware of its significance. In fact, Cicero himself clarified the content of the latter concept by drawing a fundamental connection between the passion for knowledge and the elevation of human nature (Nybakken, O. E., 1939).

Throughout the centuries, the right to education underwent a number of changes before landing at its current formulation in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Modern society has now recognized its universal, accessible, and mandatory nature, at least in its early phases, and this is of fundamental importance when contextualized in contemporary culture.

Brief history of the Saudi education system

Saudi students study in the Prince Salman Library at the King Saud University in Riyadh. Photo by Tribes of the World.


Saudi Arabia, as outlined in the Saudi Vision 2030 growth plan, has recognized this relevance and has been at the forefront among MENA countries in the field of education.

To be able to understand this plan of innovation, it is necessary to outline at least the most general features of the historical and political background.
The three identity lines constituting the core of Saudi society are Islam, tribalism, and oil trade (Ochsenwald, W. L., 2019). As far as education is concerned, of the three the most interesting element is certainly the religious one: Saudi Arabia is an Islam Sunnite theocratic state whose citizenship can only be obtained by professors of the Muslim religion (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ministry of Interior Ministerial Agency of Civil Affairs, 1954).

The greatest support of such a close link between religion and State is surely the educational system, which since the seventh century has been articulated in various institutions related to the religious sphere. The most prominent examples are the kataatiib, elementary schools where young Saudis are taught the principles of the Quran (Esposito, John L., ed., 2003). Over the centuries, particularly under Ottoman rule, schools and teaching methods underwent numerous changes, culminating in modern times in a radical centralization of the system, presided over by the Governmental Directorate of Education (Rugh, W. A., 2002).

Oil business revenues played a key role in financing government educational projects. Particularly, in the late 1970s’ the State championed a series of development plans resulting in the extraordinary increase in school enrollment by 192% at the elementary level, 375% at the intermediate level, and 712% at the secondary level (Anon, 2020).

Now, in the context of Saudi Vision 2030, the education sector is being swept up in a new wave of investment aimed at equipping Saudi students with the tools they need to tackle “the jobs of the future” (Vision 2030, 2022).   In concrete terms, the considerable public spending (17.5 percent SAR 1.1 trillion in 2019) has resulted in the construction of 719 new schools and in a substantial school staff re-training program (KSA budget report, 2018).

The entire modernization process has thus culminated in the establishment of a system that nowadays looks like this: the country is equipped with an extensive network of public education centers segregated by gender and divided into three basic levels, elementary (six years), intermediate (three years) and secondary (three years) (Barry, A., 2019).


In terms of accessibility, the system can be said to be quite advanced: looking at the three regions with the lowest human development index in the country (0.855 HDI), namely Sourth Narjiran, Asir and Jizan it can be noted that the ratio schools – population is even more favorable than in the Riyadh province, the most prosperous in the country (Subnational HDI, 2023).

In fact, while the southern provinces have about 1 school for every 600 citizens residing in the territory, the populous capital region, although home to 38.9 % of Saudi educational institutions, has a value of 1 to 1392 in terms of school-citizen ratio (Saudi Arabia Education Report, 2021).

Another determinant factor  of accessibility is affordability: government schools are free for the entire population. However, the presence of numerous international private schools and the renown associated with them risks undermining equality in achieving the best schooling, on the basis of economic discrimination (Anon, 2020). However, it is pointed out that the public system, by virtue of the aforementioned centralization, is the most frequented by the population and therefore this constitutes a minor problem (Saudi Arabia Education Report, 2021).

Overall, the Saudi education system can be said to enjoy good accessibility, as evidenced by the growth of the student population by more than 6 percentage points in just four years (Saudi Arabia Education Report, 2021).

For economically disadvantaged students

However, formal equity does not necessarily correspond to substantive equity: while on paper the school system is equally accessible to all citizens from all income brackets, studies show that, in essence, students from economically disadvantaged families do not enjoy the same privileges.

Data report that the percentage of students under the age of fifteen coming from disadvantaged economic backgrounds who repeated an academic year amounts to 24.2 percent, compared with an average of 20.3% reported in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

In contrast, economically privileged students who found themselves having to repeat a year of their course of study amounted to only 3.3%, compared with 5.0% recorded in OECD countries.
These data highlight how the range of inequality regarding educational opportunities is eminently wide in KSA, where 20.9 percentage points divide disadvantaged students from privileged ones (compared with an average of 15.3 percent in OECD countries).

Other relevant indicators concern the student-teacher ratio among students in either socio- economically disadvantaged or advantaged schools. Here, too, the measured disparity rates are worryingly high when compared to the OECD average and motivate the poor performance of disadvantaged students in both mathematics and the humanities (Education GPS, 2018).

In light of the above, it is clear that the Kingdom still needs to take many steps to succeed in smoothing out the aforementioned differences so that every individual can fully enjoy his or her right to education.

For women

Another peculiarity to be taken into consideration is gender segregation, which in itself is not an obstacle to the use of educational services but may in some cases be a pretext for degrading education addressed to a gender, often the female one. Yet the data speak for themselves: in Saudi Arabia, female students follow the same curricular program and put to the test they outperform male students in all areas surveyed, including math, science, and curriculum subjects (Abdourahmane , B, 2021).

Such a result seems to support the hypothesis that, particularly in the MENA area, the division between males and females allows the latter to emancipate themselves more easily and express their intellectual qualities free from the social pressures related to the male-female relationship (Eisenkopf, Hessami, Fischbacher, & Ursprung, 2015).

The choice of curriculum subjects is a perfect example of this: in an all-female school it was found that female students felt more comfortable choosing science-oriented subjects, even though usually perceived as “boy stuff” (Sanford, K., & Blair, H., 2013).
In view of this, it can be inferred that the gender segregation system is not a detriment to the education of young Saudi women, quite the contrary.

Additionally, enrollment rates in primary and secondary educational institutions are reported to be almost the same for men and women (Abdourahmane , B, 2021) and in 2018, 66 percent of natural science, mathematics and statistics graduates were women (OECD, 2019).

However, the real issue for a Saudi woman arises once she completes her studies. The unemployment rate for women stands at 21.5 percent, compared to 3.5 percent for men (World Bank Data, 2013). As reported by the OECD women are still less likely to work despite improving gender equality in tertiary attainment levels due to the “regulatory barriers of a conservative society,” combined with endemic discrimination against women and a gendered educational system (Alfarran, A., Pyke, J., & Stanton, P., 2018). The latter, while it does not prevent women from obtaining an adequate education, it does in part prevent them from employing the knowledge they have acquired in the labor market.

In this respect, the data on the accessibility of the educational system for women should be read in conjunction with that on the labor market, so as to have a more complete picture of its critical points.

Saudi Ambassador Visits His Children at ASIS. Photo by Lwi932.


One of the methods used to assess the quality of a school system is to conceive it as a production system divided into inputs and outputs.
By inputs we mean the stimuli provided to students through curricular programs, methods, staff, and teaching materials, while outputs are student performances, not only in terms of academics, but also participation and long-term impact on society wise (OECD, 2000).

Looking at the case of the KSA, the first critical issue related to inputs provided by the system concerns schools whose principal reported that the school’s capacity to provide instruction is hindered to some extent or a lot by a lack of educational material, which amount to 44.4 percent against an average of 28.4 percent in OECD countries.

A similar figure is found in relation to the lack of teaching staff: 49.5 %of schools complain of such a shortage, compared with an average of 27.1% in OECD countries.

These shortcomes result in relatively lower academic outcomes than the OECD metric. Saudi students scored on average 100 points lower than their OECD peers in tests on reading, mathematics and science. However, it is indicated by PISA that the average for OECD countries amounts to 500, with values ranging from 400 to 600. Therefore, it can be said that KSA falls within a good range of achievement.

Based on the above, it can be concluded that in general the Saudi system, although not without critical issues, boasts an adequate overall quality resulting in fairly good academic preparation and cultural training of students.

In conclusion, Saudi Arabia has faced many challenges in the education sector in recent decades. However, the government has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to improving the quality of education and providing educational opportunities for its citizens. The expansion of public schools and the establishment of new universities are just some of the positive steps taken by the country. Despite this, there are still some issues to be resolved, such as gender inequality and the need to develop a more equal educational system in terms of economic opportunities. This is why it is necessary for government authorities to give absolute priority to the issue: education is a basic human right, and only through quality, inclusive and equitable education Saudi society will progress and prosper.