Throughout most of the 20th century, a wide international audience heavily criticized the Saudi educational system; the international community condemned the Saudi educational system for its conservative nature, for its deep religious (Islam) referencing, as well as its much rooted biases towards glorifying the monarchy, and finally for the huge inequalities created amongst genders in receiving education. Yet, Saudi officials remained adamant in their response, stressing on the claim that Saudi Arabians are conservative by nature, and that "westernizing" their educational system will not fit the traditional nature of the Saudi Arabian society.
Prior to the 20th century, education in Saudi Arabia (then known as Arabia) was strictly limited to the reading, writing and recitation of the Holy Qur'an. Yet as traditional and basic as this may seem, a very few percentage of the population were educated in that traditional manner, the remainder of the population were highly illiterate, and did not show much interest towards receiving an education.
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The early 1920s saw a significant boom in education, as a few number of private schools opened in the region, and offered educational subject other than religion, and the teachings of Islam and the Qur'an. It was not until the unification of Arabia under the current ruling Monarchy of Al-Saud did education become 'state-sponsored'. It was then that the era of "modern education" began in Saudi Arabia.
Though education had become state sponsored, it was not until the 1950s before the government had establish a significant network of secondary schools that provided Saudi citizens with an adequate education, and in 1954, the Saudi Arabian monarchy established the Ministry of Education; where the first Minister of Education would be the late King Fahd Bin Abdelaziz. By 1957, Saudi Arabia had opened its first university that was not fully religious.
Nevertheless, it took Saudi Arabia another decade to allow public education for women and girls (under certain rules and conditions still applied today), which began to take place in 1964 in spite of strong from the conservatives of the Saudi society. Moreover, it took the Saudi Arabian government until 1975 to establish an integral institution in any successful educational system, the Ministry of Higher Education. In parallel to this, in the 1970s and 1980s the government of Saudi Arabia introduced a new form of educational development, which was aimed at improving the literacy rates amongst Saudi Arabian citizens, as well as significantly improving the current educational system that was in a pitiful state.
The number improved notably since the introduction of these educational development plans, where literacy rates had risen from 15% for men and 2% for women in 1970, to 73% for men and 48% for women in in 1990. By the beginning of the millennium, Saudi Arabia's literacy figures stood at 91% literacy amongst males, and 70% amongst females  . The numbers reflect the outstanding effort put through by the Saudi government to improve their personal society's educational needs, as well as showing the government's commitment in universalizing education. This also very well clear when looking at the educational budget figures set forth by the government; where in the 1970s funds allocated towards education made-up almost 8% of the Saudi governments budget, while in the early 2000s, the funds allocated towards education increased to 27% of the total government budget (amounting to almost 15 billion US Dollars)  .
Education in Saudi Arabia is not compulsory, but it is free to all, textbooks and health services for students included. Hence, the spread of education is dependent on availability of schools in the various regions, rather than on other factors. It seems that the government is working intensively to improve this and increase the enrollment rate. According to some data, in 1960, 22% of boys and 2% of girls were enrolled in schools. In 1981 the rates stood at 81% and 43%, respectively. In 1989 the number of girls enrolled in the public school system was close to the number of boys: 1.2 million girls as against 1.4 million boys. It is said that today, the number of female students exceeds that of male students in both schools and universities.
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The educational system available in Saudi Arabia is one of a very complex nature. Until recently, there were five parallel systems, apart from private and international schools in the Kingdom, as well as the Saudi schools of various levels abroad. The Ministry of Education, however, is responsible for boys' education all over the country at most levels: elementary and intermediate general education, as well as secondary general and vocational education (the latter being divided into technical, commercial and agricultural schools).
In addition, the Ministry is responsible for adult education, both in the field of eradicating illiteracy and in providing continuing education. The numerous junior colleges, male-teacher colleges and post-secondary technical schools also belong to the Ministry of Education, which supervises all private schools in the country as well.  Private schools exist mainly in the larger cities. They basically teach the same curriculum and use the same books that are used in the public sector. The Ministry of Higher Education is responsible for most universities in the Kingdom (some of which being under the authority of the Higher Education Council of Ministers)  .
The Ministry also supervises the colleges of higher education. It should be noted that the overall policy of higher education in Saudi Arabia is usually determined by the Higher Education Council of Ministers - presided over by the Prime Minister (who has traditionally been the King himself).
Until lately, girls' education was a separate endeavor. Under the General Presidency of Girls' Education, It was always linked to the Ministry of Education since the curriculum was the same. In March 2002, the General Presidency was fully merged into the Ministry of Education. Within the Ministry, the General Presidency is also responsible for girls' junior colleges, for female-teacher colleges throughout the Kingdom, and for nurseries and kindergartens where children of both sexes are taught together. Women's literacy programs also fall under its supervision. It should be noted that female students are educated in separate branches of Saudi universities.
A distinct system is responsible for religious education of the secondary and post-secondary levels, supervised by the two Islamic universities. Its main goal is to provide the State with generations of clerics in the various religious disciplines. Finally, there are military schools and academies of the various defense forces where youngsters are trained. These schools belong to the Ministry of Defense or to the National Guard, which is a separate force, independent of the Saudi armed forces.
Nevertheless, public education at all levels and types of study is never separate from its Islamic roots. Religion is studied at all levels alongside the other subjects. It is usually divided into five subjects: Qur'an recitation (Tajwid), Qur'an commentary (Tafsir), Prophetic sayings (Hadith), Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh), and "monotheism".
The Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia has laid out its policies to the general public in an 18-page document (236 clauses) that clearly states the educational policies abided. The Ministry of Education's policies makes their aims clear by committing themselves to the globally accepted ideas of educational and student development. Yet apart from these standard commitments, the nature of the document reveals some very troubling signs. Of the 236 clauses outlined in the published script, 40 of which standout in where they reflect the ministry's clear emphasis of maintaining the Islamic conservative nature of Saudi education, as well as the overall conservative nature of the Saudi society.
Clauses such as clause number 11 in the first chapter of the document "The religious sciences are fundamental in all the years of elementary, intermediate and [all] branches of secondary education. Islamic culture is a basic subject in all the years of higher education." And clause number 155 "Coeducation of boys and girls is prevented in all education phases, except in nurseries and kindergartens." Are clear indicators of the Saudi Ministry of Education's intentions, as well as raise several questions in regard to further educational development and reform.
The current need for education reform is well understood by Saudi Arabian policymakers, who have put forth a more progressive and dynamic plan for the future of education in Saudi Arabia. A 2004 publication by the Saudi Ministry of Education states that "there are indications that the fault lies in the kind and methods of education and their ability to influence types and behavior and attitudes of thinking." This publication came forth after the Saudi Shoura council heavily criticized the Ministry of Education questioning the Ministry's educational performance during the past years, specifically about the curriculum and programs that do not meet students' socioeconomic needs or their expectations.
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The education system with its tools and methods has not had the desired effect on students' behavior and has not contributed to the vision of the present circumstances in relation to the immediate and distant environments. This makes it crucial to provide clear vision and mature recognition of the contents of the education system that will fulfill the society's needs and aspirations.
Moreover, the educational system did not manage to alleviate the balance in the Saudi society, and with pressure growing on the Saudi government to provide the ever-expanding labor market with adequate job positions; with the numbers of the working age population expected to double to 8.26 million in 2020. Government employment, with the exception of the education and health sectors, is expected to remain at the same level; consequently, the private sector is expected to absorb the majority of the new entrants to the labor market. Currently, new jobs are created for only one quarter of the total number of job entrants.
Under the present economic circumstances, academic performance and technical skills are increasingly important. With more and more job entrants and fewer government jobs, competition is fierce, and many of those Saudis who have been educated abroad or at the more 'secular' Saudi universities find it easier to get jobs in the private sector, where proficiency in English is often required. With the state no longer able to provide positions for all, once the differences in levels of education start to be reflected more markedly in recruitment practices, feelings of resentment and marginalization could begin to emerge among those with a traditional educational background. Saudi Arabia's lack of skilled employees is a direct result of the country's educational and economic policy during the oil boom years. There is a huge gap between the output of the education system and the requirements of the domestic labor market. In many specialties, the number of graduates exceeds the actual requirements of the labor market in terms of occupational classification and job description.
Consequently, the Saudi Ministry Of Education has set up an ambitious 10-year comprehensive plan that covers all levels of education and engages various interrelated ministries, institutions, and groups. The Ministry's strategy is based on the key challenges that face the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; many of those, tackle the effect a successful educational system has on social issues, such as unemployment, skilled labor force, globalization, technological advancements, and the preservation of a national identity.
Based on these challenges, a strategy was formulated and developed into a series of goals and objectives that focuses on subjects ranging from preparing children for primary education to the establishment of an integrated accountability system.
The goals and objectives highlighted in the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education's report demonstrate the comprehensiveness of the proposed plan, which is ambitious by the Ministry's own description. The plan adequately covers the dimensions in the strategy framework. The approach follows a comprehensive seven-stage plan that on paper indicates success.
Proper planning of the education strategy is half of the reform equation. The other half is effective implementation of the plan. Although the Saudi education reform strategy is comprehensive, its impact will depend on the benefits it accumulates from its experience and the effectiveness of implementation.
Consequently, the plan and its resultant outcomes can be accurately assessed only in hindsight. However, Saudi Arabia can benefit from successful experiences by sidestepping potential pitfalls of the implementation process, such as applying systemic changes to the education system in order to cope with the current technological advancements, as well as developing a self-sufficient quality control mechanism where instructors, teachers, professors, and administrator are rotationally and randomly evaluated on their performance and their quality of delivering information, hence, ensuring that a high level of quality education is delivered to the general Saudi public.
In addition to a quality control mechanism, another major reform issue must be confronted. More must be done at the governmental level to provide women equal opportunity in education and to ensure that women benefit from full education, eradication of illiteracy, and vocational training. The government needs to formulate an educational reform strategy for young women that include major structural changes in the school system and that will respond to the demands and priorities of a changing dynamic society. It is vital that the policy of the government be geared toward facing the new social and economic changes affecting the country and the Arab region. The success of Saudi society depends on how it will invest in all its members, not only men, as women are also a valuable potential resource in the development of the country. The development of female skills will lead to the development of human resource capital, thus minimizing their economic isolation in the Saudi market.
Furthermore, the Saudi government must begin empowering the private sector. The outcome of this decision will likely help infuse additional resources into both secondary and higher education levels. While government funding should continue to be the main source of funds, cooperation between the private sector and the education system (especially higher education institutions) must be encouraged through higher autonomy for schools and private sector incentives.
The close collaboration and coordination of the various sources of funds is essential to ensure the effectiveness of all contributions. The operating entities should play an important role in coordinating with and monitoring other relevant ministries to assist the Ministry of Education, encouraging contributors to collaborate and coordinate.
Finally, it is important to ensure that education expenditure is productive. This means ensuring proper assessment of inputs and outputs to education reform efforts. As such, performance and accountability measures become paramount in ensuring success of any plan. A successful education reform policy depends on frequent and consistent measurement.
This, in contrast to the previous educational development efforts set forth by the Saudi government in the past (70s and 80s), is a much more stable and successful plan. In the past, the Saudi government and the Saudi Ministry of Education focused primarily on the quantitative expansion, as well as the infrastructural development of the education system, and did not put much regard to the qualitative aspects of a developed and successful educational system.
Resistance to this change in the educational system is imminent, as even the most liberal minded, well exposed and educated Saudi's have come out with statements defending their country's educational system, referring to its criticizers and their critiques as a violation against Saudi Arabian sovereignty, as well as a violation against Saudi Arabian identity. Moreover, the Saudi media (influenced by the government), has portrayed the criticisms directed towards the nations' religiously influenced educational system as a conspiracy and an attack against Islam and the teachings of Islam; even the sheikhs, imams, and clerics (Ulamas) of the Holy Cities denounced the notion of changing the educational system, going as far as calling it high treason.
Nevertheless, this foreseeable resistance to change should not be look upon subjectively, but rather it can be used to the notions' advantage. It may provide a starting point for a dialogue among various stakeholders that will be important not only in respect of curriculum development but also for the emergence and involvement of a more active civil society. The debate, if allowed to take place openly and with the participation of the population, may also trigger a more far-reaching discussion about national identity, the political future of the country and the relationships between the government, the Ulama and the people.
In conclusion, the Saudi Arabian system of education is one of daring challenges, and with the current global and regional events that are taking place, it would serve the Saudi Arabian government, and the Saudi Arabian society, well to proceed with the education reform process, as the longer they wait, the more difficult these challenges get. The Saudi Arabian government has shown before that they can achieve success through reform (disregarding the means of reform), thus it is safe to presume that the new educational development reforms will not be anything less than successful.