To improve U.S. relations, Saudi kingdom spending billions of dollars on scholarships.
In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. slashed the number of visas it granted to people of Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds. But 10 years later, Saudi Arabia will send 50,000 students to study at American universities — more than 10 times the number it did before the attacks, according to figures from the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Saudi government will grant each of these students $200,000 in tuition and benefits on average as part of a scholarship program established by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in 2006. The Saudi government is spending more than $2 billion a year on the program, based on information from the embassy.
The scholarships are a form of soft diplomacy on behalf of the Saudi government in response to strained relations with the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The Saudi government wants Saudis to see America themselves, “rather than see it through the lens of a camera,” said Nail Al-Jubeir, chief spokesman at the Saudi Embassy. Now they’re doing so in record numbers.
Of the many conditions stated by the Ministry of Higher Education for students to receive the scholarship, female students have the additional requirement of traveling with “a legally acceptable male companion, who will be required to travel with her and remain with her until the completion of her scholarship study.”
‘A whole generation’
Ahmed Al-Omran, 27, is one of these students. Hailing from the eastern Saudi city of Hofuf, he used a King Abdullah Scholarship to come to New York City and study at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He now works as a social media intern at NPR’s Washington headquarters.
“The scholarship program was great,” said Al-Omran. “I’m always surprised and impressed by the diversity here.”
Al-Omran said Saudi Arabia is growing rapidly and its universities can’t produce enough qualified workers to satisfy the job market. The King Abdullah Scholarship program tries to solve that problem, he said, by sending Saudis abroad for training.
But Al-Omran also said there are unstated goals for the program. The government “is trying to expose young Saudis to different parts of the world,” he said. “A whole generation of young people get to experience the world and see how people live. It’s a benefit for the whole country.”
It is also a benefit to the U.S. economy, says Christy Nichols, International Student Adviser at American University. “We have over 1000 students bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said, “not just tuition but also rent for those who live off campus and boosting local economies. That is millions of dollars going into the U.S. economy, which we need at this time right now.”
According to the Saudi Embassy and the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education’s website, the scholarship program covers:
· Full tuition and fees
· An $1,800 monthly stipend for student; $700 additional for spouse, or $1,800 additional if spouse is also studying; $500 additional per child
· Round-trip plane tickets for student and any dependents
· Study-related travel and other academic expenses
· Medical coverage
· Bonuses for outstanding academic performance
Students who receive the King Abdullah Scholarship receive full tuition, living costs, bonuses for academic performance and many other benefits. Before 9/11, only 3,000 Saudis received scholarships to study in the U.S. Now, that number has increased by more than a factor of 10. Saudi King Abdullah reached an agreement in 2005 with then-President George W. Bush to increase the number of student visas issued to Saudis.
Al-Jubeir said the king created the scholarship program because many Saudis were reluctant to travel to the U.S. after 9/11.
“They didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Rumors started spreading on chat rooms and blogs about life in the U.S.” Al-Jubeir said many people thought there was widespread persecution of Saudis in America.
Lots of Saudis left the U.S. after 9/11, Al-Omran said. “Relations became very contentious.” The Saudi government hopes the scholarships will help thaw U.S.-Saudi relations by creating more person-to-person connections between the two countries.
Anthony Quainton, a professor of international relations at American University and a former U.S. diplomat to Kuwait, said the scholarship program “has no short-term impact” on U.S.-Saudi relations.
He said it may boost the Saudi economy by infusing it with more highly-skilled workers, but diplomatic relations between the two countries are driven largely by oil, the Arab-Israeli dispute and the U.S. conflict with Iran.
Quainton said the U.S. may benefit from having a generation of Saudis return home with a greater knowledge of U.S. culture, but he noted that their opinion of the U.S. “may not necessarily be a favorable one.” Many of the people who participated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Quainton noted, were educated in America.
But Al-Omran says he’s had a positive experience in America so far. He wants to use his government-financed degree to return to Saudi Arabia and become a foreign correspondent for U.S. news outlets. With his background in Saudi Arabia and his experience in America, Al-Omran says, “I think I would be in a good place to put things in context.”
Scholarships bring rising numbers of Saudi students to U.S.
Saudi Arabia created the King Abdullah Scholarship program in 2006 in response to a post-9/11 dip in Saudis traveling to the U.S. Since its creation, the state-funded program has sent more and more Saudi students abroad every year. This chart shows the number of U.S. student visas issued to Saudis for each year since 2001.
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Yearbook of Immigration Statistics
Graphic by David Schultz and Lydia Beyoud