Saudi Students Face a Changing System ; Reformers Are Hoping to Remove Inflexible - and Sometimes Anti- Western - Aspects of the Saudi Educational System. A Flagging Economy Makes the Task Urgent

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Third of four parts

Amal is a twentysomething fourth-year medical student whose parents taught her to dream big. She does: Amal wants to be Saudi Arabia's first famous female plastic surgeon.

Mansour al-Nogaidan is a thirtysomething writer who grew up with a different dream - he wanted to become a devout Muslim and rid the region, if not the world, of infidels. Mr. Nogaidan did live his dream - for a time. He became a jihadist, and attempted to purge his country of "infidels."

That both these dreams were nurtured by the same educational system underscores the challenges facing reformers in Saudi Arabia. That Amal can pursue her educational goals is remarkable, considering the country opened schools for girls only in 1960. But whether she will have been prepared for a real job is another thing.

Nogaidan has amended his ways, but says that the seeds of his extremism were planted during his early education. The government is working on a number of reforms but as with all other reforms necessary in this country, it's a difficult balancing act between hard-line religious conservatives and more liberal-minded citizens.

"We need to have a rehabilitation program," says Khaled al- Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News, the largest English language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. "We need to teach our children tolerance and dialogue.... Parents would rather see their children carry a PC than a hand grenade or an AK-47."

A fight to reform the system

The government last year began to remove objectionable language in textbooks. According to several educators and students alike, this year school texts were cleansed of objectionable references to Jews, Christians, and Hindus, and the inappropriate use of the word "jihad." A government council made up of several educators and other professionals is reexamining both textbooks and teaching habits.

But, "the No. 1 problem is that the religious community is so tough in opposing reforms," says a Western diplomat based in Riyadh. "The No. 2 problem is they argue, 'Why should we make reforms? Because Americans ask us to?' "

Indeed, one muttawa (member of the religious police) puts a harder edge on the point. "Do you have committees in America purging your books of objectionable words about Muslims?" asks Sheikh Mussa al-Hanagid.

Nogaidan says that attitudes like this are what make the system so difficult to change. "It's impossible to wait for these sheikhs to change the education system, because they are the ones controlling [it], says Nogaidan. "It's the problem the authorities face."

But reform is goes beyond hateful words and intolerant phrases. Many here say the education system needs top-to-bottom fixes to not only root out the ideology that leads to terrorism, but to keep up with a developing society and globalization.

Lifestyles, for instance, have drastically changed here. In 1981, per capita income was $28,000. Today, it is about $8,000, according to government figures. Although the oil boom economy of the 1970s and '80s that supported millions of foreign workers doesn't exist today, the number of foreign workers has swelled to some 7 million, and they fill 7 out of 10 jobs here, working mostly in the service sector, and earning far less than Saudis. More Saudi students than ever (and more women than men) are graduating from universities but can't find jobs.

Moreover, many Saudi observers say the early public education system, which is strong in sciences and math - especially for boys - doesn't teach critical thinking skills. Nor do Saudi lifestyles encourage the kind of initiative necessary to compete in the business world.

"Since 1999, Saudi Arabia started realizing that more young people coming into the market cannot meet the market needs," says Abdulrahman al-Zamil, a businessman who serves on the finance committee of the king's Majlis Ash Shura (consultative counsel). …