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Education in Saudi Navigating Saudi's Educational Landscape

Discover Saudi Arabia's evolving educational system rooted in tradition yet aligned with Vision 2030, offering pathways from elementary to tertiary education for locals and expatriates alike.

Saudi Arabia is a country with a rich cultural heritage undergoing rapid economic development. To align its educational system, deeply rooted in the country's traditions and values, with the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan, Saudi Arabia has made education the heart of its progress.

With literacy rates jumping from 15% for men and less than 2% for women in the 1960s to over 99% for men and 96% for women in 2022, the country has come a long way. The Ministry of Education is one of the Kingdom’s largest public institutions, and the government continues to allocate funds for new initiatives.

For those living, working, or investing in Saudi Arabia, understanding the educational system and its recent changes can aid their integration into society, help them make informed decisions for family members, and identify potential investment opportunities in the educational sector.

The Saudi Arabian education system is broadly categorized into three levels: elementary, intermediate, and secondary education, with many different higher education institutions offering different career paths. Accommodating a population where more than one-third are expatriates, the system maintains a balance between upholding its cultural values and integrating international educational standards.

An Overview of the Schooling System

The educational system in Saudi Arabia comprises public and private schools organized into three educational levels: elementary, intermediate, and secondary schooling. After completing high school, non-Saudi residents can choose to continue their schooling following tertiary education programs in a wide range of career prospects.

Expatriates in the Kingdom primarily enroll in private schools, which feature international curricula with strong English programs, though public schools are also accessible under certain conditions.

Public vs. Private Schooling Options

Public schools in Saudi Arabia primarily serve Saudi nationals, but there are exceptions. These schools follow a curriculum set by the Ministry of Education, emphasizing Islamic studies, Arabic language, science, mathematics, and social studies.

The public schooling system is free for Saudi citizens and provides limited opportunities for non-Saudi children, governed by specific regulations and quotas. In alignment with Cabinet Resolution No. 65, the quota for non-Saudi children in public schools is set to 15% across all three educational stages (elementary, intermediate, and secondary). This quota is applied at the district or governorate level.

Certain groups are exempt from this 15% limit, including children of Saudi women married to non-Saudis, children of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) citizens, children of displaced tribes with five-year cards, members of the Yemeni community, and children of diplomats holding diplomatic cards.

Private schools offer a range of international curricula, including British, American, International Baccalaureate, and others, providing a more familiar educational environment for foreign students. These schools often blend international educational standards with local cultural activities.

Educational Levels

Elementary Education

Elementary education lasts six years for children aged 6 to 12. Upon successfully completing all requirements, students are awarded a General Elementary School Certificate (Shahadat Al-Madaaris Al-Ibtidaa’iyyah).

Elementary education focuses on foundational skills in reading, writing, mathematics, and science, along with an introduction to social studies and Islamic education.

Intermediate Education

Students aged 12 to 15 attend the intermediate level, which lasts three years (grades seven to nine). At this stage, the curriculum comprises similar subjects but expands into more advanced concepts in sciences and humanities.

If they meet all requirements at the end of their three-year studies, children are awarded the Intermediate Education Certificate (Shahadat Al-kafa’at Al-mutawassita), which is required for progression into secondary education.

Secondary Education

Secondary education in Saudi Arabia is another three years of study for students aged 15 to 18 (grades 10 to 12) and is more specialized. Students can choose between general, religious, and technical-vocational streams.

The certificate awarded upon graduation is called the General Secondary Education Certificate, also known as “shahadat al-thanawiyyah al-‘aama” or “shahadat al-marhalat al-thanawiyyat,” often abbreviated to “thanawiyyah”.

Admission Procedures for Non-Saudi Students

For expatriate families, the admission procedures involve specific criteria and documentation requirements, especially in public schools where admissions are governed by quotas and priority rules.

Throughout all educational levels, aside from the 15% quota for non-Saudi residents, Saudi Arabia’s public schools have a priority order for the remaining seats after registering Saudi and equivalent-status students. The highest priority is given to children of non-Saudis employed in the government sector who were previously enrolled in government schools. The second highest priority is given to new students from families working in government sectors. If seats are still available, children of private-sector contractors are considered.

For admission, in general, certified academic documents and a legal residency are required. Non-Saudi students need to present the original records obtained from abroad for equivalence and acceptance into the appropriate class level. The educational authority in the country of arrival, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Saudi Embassy, or the Cultural Attaché, must certify these documents.

In addition to these requirements, depending on the school and level, other documents such as a health certificate, guardian’s employment details, and proof of address may be required.

Students with non-equivalent vocational secondary certificates are placed based on the last

equivalent public education certificate.

Finally, non-eligible or unfilled seat students are shifted to private schools after the first semester.

Admission Requirements for Different Educational Levels

For all educational levels, a legal residency is required.

  • Elementary Level Admission: Submission of recent educational documents — attested by competent official authorities.
  • Intermediate Level Admission:
    • First Class: Submission of primary level sixth-grade passing certificate or its equivalent — attested by the competent authorities.
    • Second Class: Submission of both a primary-level sixth-grade passing certificate (or equivalent) and an intermediate first-class passing certificate — attested by the competent authorities.
    • Six-Grade Class: Submission of a primary-level sixth-grade passing certificate (or equivalent) and an intermediate second-class passing certificate (or equivalent) — attested by the competent authorities.
  • Secondary Level Admission:
    • First Class: Submission of the original intermediate sixth-grade class passing certificate or its equivalent — attested by the competent authorities.
    • Second Class (Arts-Science Sections): Submission of the original passing certificate of intermediate sixth-grade class or equivalent, along with secondary first-class (general education) passing document or equivalent — attested by the competent official authorities. The documents should show subjects and earned grades.
    • General Secondary Examination: Submission of the original intermediate sixth-grade class passing certificate or equivalent, with secondary second-grade class (general education) passing document or equivalent — attested by the competent authorities. The documents should show subjects and earned grades.

University Education in Saudi Arabia

As part of its 2030 goals, the Kingdom is striving to develop a knowledgeable and skilled workforce, which has boosted the higher education standards in the country and opened up opportunities for students with a wide range of academic interests and career aspirations.

Locals, as well as non-Saudi residents, can attend universities and higher education institutions for programs at various levels, including Diploma, Bachelor's, Higher Diploma, Master's, and Ph.D. levels.

The university system comprises a mix of public and private institutions, with prominent universities like King Saud University in Riyadh, King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran being internationally known for their high academic standards and research contributions.

Admission Requirements for Universities in Saudi Arabia

International students looking to study in Saudi universities must satisfy two prerequisites.

  1. Hold a valid residency or study visa;
  2. Have an attested certificate — all academic documents must be certified by the educational authority in the country of origin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Saudi Embassy, or the Cultural Attaché.

However, admission procedures vary among universities in Saudi Arabia based on their individual policies. Many universities will require additional documents, and some have a minimum general cumulative average score requirement.

Special Considerations for Health and Medical Fields

Students looking to enter the health and medical fields may need to meet additional admission criteria due to the specialized nature of these programs. Many universities have entrance examinations, such as Qiyas or specialized medical examinations, and possibly interviews. Check the university's official website to better understand their specific admission process and application deadlines.

Important Considerations When Applying

Most Saudi universities offer an online application process, so applying is more accessible for international and local students. Prospective students should visit their chosen university's website to understand the specific registration criteria and application procedures.

Those who have had a study interruption must provide an official statement certified by the educational authority in the country of origin or a declaration from the guardian stating that no academic qualification was obtained during the period of absence. This requirement guarantees that the academic history of each applicant is transparent and comprehensive.

Cultural Integration and Language

For expatriates living, working, or studying in Saudi Arabia, integrating into the local culture and understanding the Arabic language is not just beneficial but often essential for a fulfilling living experience in the Kingdom. The prominent use of Arabic in daily life, as well as the rich cultural heritage of the language, make it imperative for foreigners to take language or integration courses.

Saudi Arabia offers various opportunities for non-native speakers to learn Arabic, including educational programs and scholarships for non-native speakers, particularly in higher education institutions. For instance, King Abdulaziz University offers a full scholarship for a two-year program to international students looking to learn Arabic as a foreign language (DCAFL Scholarship).

In addition, there are many educational initiatives focused on cultural exchange, offering students from around the world the opportunity to learn about Saudi culture, history, and language. The recently launched online platform, Culture Hub, is one such initiative that gives non-Saudi residents another opportunity for cultural exchange.

For those interested in postgraduate studies or research, several institutions offer specialized programs in Islamic studies, which are popular among international students seeking to learn about Islamic theology, law, and history.

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