Reforming Saudi Education

The all-girls’ high school is pretty typical for Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. Poured-concrete walls, dusty bougainvillea, iron gate, padlocked door. Inside, a covered courtyard keeps out the late-spring heat. On the wall hang hand-drawn posters sporting logos and slogans.

“Everything in this world is a system that controls our lives,” reads one poster, a promotion for the school’s security force. “Rules were meant to be followed.”

“The students drew these themselves!” boasts former teacher and education-reform consultant Jenan al Ahmad. “This is Tatweer.”

Loosely translated, the word tatweer means reform. More specifically, it’s the title of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Public Education Development Project—a $2.4 billion program aimed at dramatically changing the way the country’s nearly 5 million students are educated.

The ostensible idea of Tatweer is to improve the quality of graduates in Saudi Arabia—that as the country’s population explodes (more than 70 percent of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 30) and oil revenues dwindle, the kingdom needs more critical thinkers prepared to enter a modern, diversified workplace.

The underlying idea is that to produce such graduates, the curriculum must be less focused on religion—or, at least, the single, monolithic version of Islam that has dominated Saudi Arabia since the 1980s.

Known by scholars as Wahhabi-salafism, this version of Islam is built on the teachings of Mohammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, born near what is now Riyadh more than 300 years ago, who advocated the “purification” of Islam from “innovations” such as the Shiite practice of worshipping at the grave of an imam or the Sufi ritual of chanting prayers.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Wahhabism was fused with radical Egyptian salafism—a return to the way Islam was practiced in the first three centuries of its existence—when Saudi Arabia granted sanctuary to Egyptian firebrands escaping the wave of secular Arab nationalism in their home country.

Now, Wahhabi-salafis exert near-total control over the Saudi ministries of education and justice—and the religious police. Millions of teachers, judges, and sheiks constantly remind the public that the Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia is the only true Islam, and anyone who deviates from the faith is an unbeliever. In some cases, the thinking has gone, those unbelievers deserve to be punished.

This line of thought went nearly unchecked in Saudi Arabia, even after it became clear that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. It wasn’t until two years later that things began to change.

Late on the night of May 12, 2003, three car bombs exploded at housing compounds across Riyadh. On one compound, militants emerged from the rubble and stormed the houses of American, British, and Canadian doctors, nurses, and defense contractors, firing automatic weapons at the families they found inside.

Over the next three years, militants allegedly affiliated with “al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia” launched dozens more attacks across the country. An American engineer was beheaded. A veteran BBC reporter was repeatedly shot in broad daylight.

And the militants’ targets were not always foreigners. Many were Saudis. In all, 90 civilians and 74 Saudi policemen died. Hundreds more were injured. All of a sudden, Saudi Arabia’s leaders were forced to do some soul-searching.

“Members of the community tried to understand where they went wrong, and how extremist ideologies were able to infiltrate Saudi society,” wrote Saudi professor Mohammad Zayed Youssef.

Youssef’s close study of the country’s school system revealed that not only did it preach hatred against Christians and Jews, but it was filled with “the spread of hatred between Muslims.” This curriculum was “aggressively biased toward one school of thought, completely disregarding the principles of dialogue and respect between Muslims,” Youssef wrote.

With all this in mind, the kingdom’s leaders started to pursue a slow but palpable wave of reform that continues today—a movement led by the ruling monarch himself.

In 2006, KingAbdullah bin Abdulaziz launched the Tatweer education-reform project and announced it would be run as an independent corporation, outside the purview of the bloated, conservative ministry of education. Not only would the program graduate savvy, job-ready Saudis, but these young citizens would be more open to alternate interpretations of Islam and, ultimately, less likely to commit violence.

As ambitious as the project might sound, though, the posters at the Riyadh girls’ school say it all. Such a transformation will be no small task.

The bell rings for recess, and a din of voices pours into the courtyard. Teenage girls mill around an outdoor stage draped with red velvet curtains and booths set up for after-school clubs.

This is a Tatweer school, which means it’s an existing school that was reopened last year as a model, a pilot program of sorts to test reforms and see how they work.

“Tatweer is awesome,” gushes 16-year-old Mishaal al Suweidan as a group of teachers and administrators looks on. Every student gets a laptop, she says. And students now participate in “group learning,” in which the teacher asks them to solve problems, present their answers, and debate solutions. Suweidan says she wants to be an illustrator someday—to make cartoons for television, like her brother.

There seems to be no lack of technical resources for students like Suweidan: Wi-Fi access, do-it-yourself robot kits, and a science lab stocked with specimens handcrafted by an innovative biology teacher. But after hours of touring the school and talking to students and teachers, there’s little evidence that the “reform” has gone beyond the purchase of fancy new gadgets—or that the school has tackled the difficult question of how to retool the prevailing religious ideology that underpins all learning in Saudi Arabia.

Taking a coffee break in the school director’s office, Islamic-studies teacher Mayala al Qubeiri tells me she uses pretty much the same curriculum she’s taught for the last 14 years. She says these days she likes sending students to the Internet to find examples of what’s right and what’s wrong. But in the end, “we have to rely on the trusted sheiks for a final ruling.”

Upstairs, in an Islamic studies classroom, another teacher works from a brand-new electronic smart board to outline familiar Wahhabi-salafi principles. “There should be no one between you and God,” she says, a veiled reference to “unbelievers” like Shiites or Catholics who might practice their faith through “intermediaries” like imams or priests.

“There is only one way to God.”

As the Tatweer group quickly steers me away from the classroom, I can’t help but wonder: If the religious ideology remains virtually unchanged in a “model school” (not to mention one located in an affluent neighborhood near one of the country’s leading universities), what real and substantive change is possible in the tens of thousands of regular schools across the rest of Saudi Arabia? What really has been accomplished in the nearly three years since Tatweer was launched?