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
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
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
"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). …