Saudi Arabia: The School Systems



I received a recent query from a reader about the schools in Saudi Arabia.  I am not as familiar with the Saudi schools since usually my stepchildren visited with us during their school breaks.  However I can share based on observation and some basic knowledge.  I also ask for parents (Saudi and non-Saudi) who have children in the school systems to contribute too.

“So I was wondering what elementary school is like in SA.   In Egypt there are two systems: public and private.  Are there two systems in SA also?  I’m wondering how elementary school (and middle and high!) are the same and different from what we have here.    Do parents read books to their children?    I just heard from a UNC-Charlotte student that she discovered she has dyslexia (she discovered it when she came here from Saudi as a graduate student) and her brother as well.  Her father had to turn to Kuwait to find special help for her brother.   Have you heard of people with dyslexia in Saudi?”


   What stood out to me about the elementary school in Saudi Arabia were the number of books the young students receive!  My Saudi niece entered first grade when I arrived in Saudi.  She carried a big backpack so huge for her little frame and I believe it had about 12 books in it covering a variety of subjects – math, English, Arabic, Islam, Reading and even some about geography and history.  She attended a private Saudi school which was based on the British system.  Even in the first grade she had homework and each night she had to memorize one to three surahs from the Quran as part of her routine homework.  So yes, there are both public and private school systems in Saudi for Saudi children.


All (Saudi) schools through high school do require the students to wear a uniform.  Some of the private Saudi elementary schools had male and female students mixed together until grade three although the majority of the schools were segregated with separate facilities for male and female students.  I remember the elementary schools in the Saudi compound where I lived.  The girls school had a closed gate with a guard and high walls around it.


In my observation it seemed that a Saudi child with a western parent was read books more than a child with both Saudi parents.  There are exceptions and my observation is not meant to be taken that Saudi parents did not read books to their children.  I can say that there were some Saudi children who I read to that had not had books read to them before.  They loved it and it became a highlight when we were together.  They did not care that I read in English, they would snuggle up on either side of me and listen to my voice and look at the pictures.


Saudi parents do take the education of their children seriously and are known to obtain tutors if their child has difficulties in subjects.  There is a lot of pressure placed upon the students during exam time.  Many of the exams required a lot of rote memorization.


The private schools would generally offer more individualized attention and usually include English language in the curriculum from an early grade.  Some Saudi students have been able to attend the international schools which are much more costly but more similar to a typical Western curriculum and school lifestyle.


The Saudi schools do not offer extra-curricular activities such as sports, arts or music.  Depending on the school, 40 to 60 percent of the curriculum is religious studies.


When a Saudi student graduates, whether from elementary, middle school or high school, only the parent who is the same gender of the child may come and see the graduation.  A private graduation party may be held later where a family can celebrate without gender segregation.


It is not surprising that a Saudi foreign student may go through an “educational culture shock” when studying outside of the Kingdom.  With few exceptions, the Universities in the Kingdom are segregated too.  Therefore for a male or female student to study abroad where segregation and dress codes no longer exist may be an initially feeling of ‘culture overload.’


Lastly, I am not personally aware of how common dyslexia is and how it is diagnosed within Saudi Arabia.


38 Responses

  1. I can go on forever about this subject. As far as private schools are concerned, even accredited along with IB ( PYP, MYP) program still and must adhere to MOE regulations.
    Indeed, the locals did take education seriously but sometimes failed to understand that education is not always learning by rote and ‘spoon feeding information.’ Whole brain activities is fairly new idea in some parts of the GCC and takes convincing to show them that merely commiting memory is an ‘old fashion’ style of learning.
    I have seen improvements in attitude though in past seven years.

  2. Jacey what is MOE?

  3. ministry of education??

  4. @ Annie. The MOE is the Ministry of Education.

  5. I must admit that Saudi royals have done a pretty good job in providing greater access to educational opportunities for its citizens, especially for women. However, its basic approach to curriculum and teaching methods are an anathema and its own worst enemy.

    You see, apart from prevalent rote method of teaching, religion is the foundation of the Saudi state’s political ideology; it is also a key area of Saudi education in which students are taught the interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism that is reflected in these textbooks. Within the Saudi public school curriculum, Islamic studies make up a quarter to a third of students’ weekly classroom hours in lower and middle school, plus several hours each week in high school. Teachers/professors who question or dissent from the official interpretation of Islam can face severe reprisals. A few years ago, a Saudi teacher who made positive statements about Jews and the New Testament was fired and sentenced to 750 lashes and a prison term.

    Saudi Arabia’s public schools have long been known for demonizing the West as well as Christians, Jews and other “unbelievers.” But after the attacks of Sept 11, — in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis — that was all supposed to change. Since then, the Saudi government has claimed repeatedly that it has revised its educational texts and has removed materials that are inciteful or intolerant towards people of other faiths. The problem is: these claims are not true.

    A review by the Washington Post of a sample of official Saudi textbooks for Islamic studies revealed that, despite the Saudi government’s statements to the contrary, an ideology of hatred toward Christians and Jews and Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine remains in this area of the public school system. The texts teach a dualistic vision, dividing the world into true believers of Islam (the “monotheists”) and unbelievers (the “polytheists” and “infidels”).

    Another problem on a worldwide scale is that Saudi Arabia also distributes its religious textbooks and curriculum to numerous Islamic schools and madrassas that it does not directly operate, both in the US and worldwide. Undeterred by Wahhabism’s historically fringe status, Saudi Arabia is trying to assert itself as the world’s authoritative voice on Islam — a sort of “Vatican” for Islam — and these textbooks/ curriculum are integral to this effort. As the 9/11 commission observed in its report: “Even in affluent countries, Saudi-funded Wahhabi schools are often the only Islamic schools” available.

    This is a Saudi textbook: After the intolerance was removed???

  6. A good example of bad KSA education … a girl attending university and studying Geography could not tell me where Canada was located!!!! That was a shocker to me when a 10 year old child in Sudan could point out every country on an English atlas.

  7. That is surprising! For example, I found my step-children to be exceptionally well versed and knowledgeable on US geography and history. My stepson could tell me every US President – I can not do that!

  8. Carol, I’m going to guess that your step kids did not go to Saudi public schools. I mean why in the world should it matter to anyone outside (or even inside 😉 ) of the US to know all the US presidents? Strange waste of precious learning time, I’d say.

  9. Americans have a hard time naming all the states..or even the states surrounding their own state. Geography has never been high on the list of what Americans care about.

  10. ‘Americans have a hard time naming all the states..or even the states surrounding their own state’

    I seriously doubt that.

  11. I went searching for proof of my claim (which I still believe) and was totally dscouraged by all the polls showing what Americans Don’t Know about poliltics, religion, other countries, this country, history etc. Since it is well documented we dont even know much about our own history then whether the majority of us know all 50 states hardly seems worth arguing about.

  12. I may not know the history of Ohio or when it became a state but I know damned well that it is right below MY state. I know the names of the lakes around me and my husband can tell you how deep they are and what kind of fish can be caught in them ;-). I do not deny that there are a lot of people in this country that have no interest in news, politics, religion or history but I doubt very much that you will find an educated, adult or child over 10 yrs old that does not know, at the very least, the states around them. When you are at work ask the people that come in to tell you what states surround them and see if your theory holds true.

  13. For the record, my step-children (with exception of eldest step daughter) did attend the Saudi public schools.

  14. The Saudi public schools felt it was important for their students to know all the US presidents or is that something that he did on his own? If they were taught to know all the US presidents were they also taught ABOUT them? Are they also taught about Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks,Harriet Tubman or Susan B Anthony to name just a few of the brave people who helped affect change in this country?

  15. Lynn…all right. I accept the challenge…but then you have to be willing to accept whatever results I come up with. I promise not to fudge my findings if you promise to climb off your high horse before you get a nose bleed. 😉

    And not having an interest in something is not the same as something like not even knowing the name of our vice president or some such thing. How can you be an American with the media bombardment we have 24 hours a day and not know something basic like that? etc etc.Determined ignorance?

  16. Carol…it is interesting that you refer to your husbands children as ‘step” considering there really is no comparable word in Arabic as they dont consider children by other marriages related or “step” regardless of how long (or short) they have known the “step” parent. I realize you probably use that word to let us know whom you’re referring too but I’m wondering if they refer(red) to you as such as well?

  17. Coolred, of course I will accept your results and if I ever go out among people I too will ask them if they can tell me what states surround theirs.

    I don’t know why you think I am on some kind of high horse though. Are you PMSing or something? 😉

  18. My stepson had an avid interest in America and its history. He is also an avid reader and enjoyed non-fiction. I know that the USA is covered in geography and world history but I’m not sure to what extent.

    I’ve always referred to my husband’s children as stepchildren. I guess that is due to my American upbringing. I’m happy to say that they referred to me as “American Mom” or would also call me Carol.

  19. Lynn…oh lord…bad enough when men blame every action, thought, or feeling women experience as PMsing…but for women to go there too is soooooo…what’s the word Im looking for..ah yes…stupid!!

  20. I didn’t blame anything on anything. I just asked a question. You could have just said ‘No, I’m just always a bitch’ 😉

  21. The good news is that pretty soon children will be able to get a full Saudi-style education at home, in US and canada, so no need to live in SA.

    I can imagine what the imam is teaching these children, with the School Board’s approval. Oh, he just having them “memorize the Quran” – and we all know what it says about us vile infidels. What could go wrong? This is another eason we need a line in the sand with respect to Islam.

    On the other hand, I imagine that the Saudis schools are probably no worse than American ones, given the sad state of US education. I have seen US students that have no idea where Africa is, or in what century the civil war occuured, or who was the first US president.
    Most can’t do basic algebra or write a correct, coherent sentence. Witness the scandal in Atlanta.

    Anyway, go to go. Today I go to Macau – where Camoes wrote the Lusiadas, the Portuguese national epic. China is interesting. Nice to see where our jobs and money go.

  22. WHY are they giving special accommodation to the muslim students? and when every religion under the sun demands equal time what are they going to do?

    I know that here in the USA they would kick up a major stink about it unless it was a private Muslim school as no one is allowed to pray (as far as I know) in public school.

  23. oby, prayer, any kind, is accommodated in public schools in private or group settings and Muslim children (boys) get excused absences on Friday afternoons. It’s just that the school cannot make prayer mandatory or anything like that.

  24. I know what states surround mine – VA to the north, TN to the west, SC and GA to the south! And I know the current VP. Biden, right?

    I feel so smart! 😀

    Carol, that’s impressive about your stepson knowing all the US presidents and his being interested in US history.

    Coolred, I’m eager to hear the results of your convenience store poll. 😀

    Y’all are funny!

  25. Jay, I can see the reasoning for having the imam come to the school rather than have all those kids leaving school and missing so much. IF it’s just on Fridays and IF it is in a private location and IF there is a LOT of Muslims students at that school.

    Enjoy your trip! How exciting, you get to see where the evil Walmart sends all the manufacturers grrrrrr!!

  26. Susanne, I always knew you were a smart one! 🙂

  27. Lynn…

    Please expound…I’m a bit confused. I don’t know of any school that accomadates prayer…I’m not saying I don’t believe you I am just saying I have not heard of that and plenty of the other side…I am wondering if you mean that they are accommodating prayer on the school grounds due to a lack of space elsewhere or are they actually given time away from school to pray in the school? If so is it allowable for Jews or Hindus (Tuesday used to be the day my husbands family prayed etc? I never ever heard of that outside of a private school…I know they can’t make it mandatory but why the big stink then if students WANT to pray in school while allowing others who don’t want to to be excused? There is so much noise about that…

  28. I read some of the comments from Jays article…I found this one particularly interesting. I think she has a few good points.

    “1) All extra-curricular activities for all (muslim and non-muslim) students in the gym/cafeteria are cancelled for Fridays, as is use of the cafeteria by any teacher who wants to work on a performance with a large group of students on curricular topic.

    2) The heating and maintenance of the cafeteria are paid for by the board. This means, essentially, the board is still paying for religious instruction exclusively for one ethnic group attending the school

    3) The superintendant is quoted as saying he can’t guarantee any imam coming in to the school won’t be making objectionable remarks about gays, women, other ethnic groups as he can’t interfere with a group’s religious instruction (See the Toronto Sun for his remarks). And all this will take place in a public school during the school day. (Get ready for a lot of homophobic, anti-Jew, pro-traditional women talks.) Extremist views will, of course, be understood to be condoned by the school, as this is taking place on school property when school officials are present in the building.

    4) The school board has now recruited public school teachers – and not the parents – to make sure Muslim children attend mosque on Fridays

    5) Teachers (many of them women like myself) working in that school will be directing girl children to a room where they will be made to sit at the back of the room – in the fear of inciting boy children into thinking promiscuous thoughts. This, to me, is the most objectionable part of how a public school teacher will spend her day.

    6) Get ready for the future war waged on a school’s timetable and classrooms as other ethnic groups insist on inviting their religious leaders into the schools to conduct their own prayers and education.”

  29. What I mean is it is illegal to have a school hosted prayer as in a teacher or principal or any other school representative leading it. But, it is illegal to not allow a kid to pray if they want to be excused to do so. As for those that are excused to go pray off campus somewhere they must be allowed to leave without their absence being counted against them. I’m sure that they would still have to make up any work that they miss though. These rights are for anyone, regardless of their religion. I’m pretty sure that even the Pastafarians would be accommodated but Rastafarians would be out of luck since schools are Drug Free School Zones, it’s even illegal to smoke cigarettes on school property so marijuana would be a definite NO.

  30. Lynn…funny!

    Well I find that fascinating…so technically if Hindus or even Christians want to get together and bring in a reverend and pray on a daily or weekly basis they can? I have never heard of that.Wow…what I have heard is the opposite…no praying in class, no having programs that can be called Christmas programs… everything (all religions) sanitized right out of school. Kids who want to have Christian clubs (and I say christian as that is the most common religion we hear about) are not allowed. I bet if you asked 100 people, 90 would say that all forms of religion (teacher guided or clergy guided) are not allowed in public schools. That has been pounded home so hard…

  31. oby, 1. Sounds like it is just reserving a spot for the group and they chose the Cafeteria. My daughter’s school had an MSA (Muslim student association) and they met after school in the library. I’m sure that they prayed and they could have guest speakers. The MSA had to have a teacher sponsor them before they would be allowed to have the group. Basically that is just so that an adult would be in the building and responsible for the students while on school property. I believe that they lost the privilege of the use of the library after leaving a food mess (probably repeatedly). I don’t know what the situation is now.

    2. They are heating and maintaining the cafeteria anyway. The students would be responsible for cleaning up any messes that they might make but the janitor would most likely wait to clean the cafeteria until the place is vacated anyway.

    3.They would only be preaching to a choir anyway. If those kids left the building to go to a mosque they’d hear the same thing and the parents approve so no biggie. It’s not like all the kids Muslim and non will be forced into the auditorium for prayer time. The school allows groups like the MSA without checking the content of their programs etc.

    4 & 5 I don’t know about Canadian law but that would NOT go on here in the States.

    6. I wouldn’t consider an imam coming to the school to lead the Friday prayer as religious ‘education’. I don’t know that it would be something that is allowed though. Does the jumma prayer HAVE to be lead by an imam? But, the school’s timetable has always been effected by religions, no one ever has school on Christmas or Easter right? Well, schools with high Muslim populations likely get Eid off AND Christmas and Easter but there are still required hours of educational instruction so they will have to figure out how to make it work. The school district would not close for a holiday unless a significant majority of the students would be off to observe the holiday so I don’t see how it could become that big of a deal..

  32. ‘so technically if Hindus or even Christians want to get together and bring in a reverend and pray on a daily or weekly basis they can?’

    I really couldn’t say for sure about that. I know that the MSA meeting could have ‘speakers’ attend their meetings

    About the ‘no praying in class’. How could they tell if a Christian was praying? It isn’t that praying isn’t allowed, it just isn’t allowed to be ‘imposed’ on anyone.

    I don’t know that it isn’t ‘allowed’ to call a Christmas Program a Christmas program and they are usually, as i have noticed, called ‘Holiday Programs’ and no one is forced to participate and they try to keep it very secular with Santa or winter themes rather than Jesus. That brings to mind one Christmas when my daughter’s class was having a Christmas party in class (kg or 1st grade) and one classmate, a Jehova’s Witness, did not go to school that day because his parents didn’t allow him to celebrate. My daughter felt so sorry for him. Funny eh? LOL

    Christian clubs ARE allowed just as the MSA and any other group that wants a club and can get a sponsor can have one. Including Gay/Lesbian/Bi Clubs.

  33. Well the Toronto case has opened a can of worms. I hope parents of other faiths all over the district start demanding their own special accommodations. That would be interesting. We would see if the School Board is honest or just bowing to islam. Great that it was the Hindus that raised the issue. It is pathetic that the Super had to admit that he had no idea what the Imam was teaching. Great!

    A little bit of religion as history or culture is fine, but not indoctrination as in this case. I bet the SChool made all Muslim kids attend, not just the fanatics. Kids today need science and math, history and literature (writing) not some religious dogma that does little but create distruct and hate between people.

    Macau was interesting. Rich. Bigger than I expected. I can see why it has surpassed vegas in gambling revenue. The old historic macau is still there but mostly lost in Chinese culture. It almost seems that the only thing left from the Portuguese era are the street names and signs. Nobody speaks Portuguese. now (well except one garcon)

    Tomorrow beijing.

  34. IMO it is best to leave religious education to parents. and segregating or teaching any one religion to a group in school is not a goo didea. why not just have a prayer session before school int he morning and on a rotation represent all faiths.. one per day , maybe one day left free.. no force.
    That was the way it was done in my time in school. everyday we had an assembly and one student per faith read 2 lines of their text/prayer etc., we usually did hindu/muslim/ christian/buddhist and one day we had a zorastrian kid and so that got included.. since he was the only onehe got to read prayers daily, poor kid got tired and asked if anyone would like to do it, a few of us volunteered and it was kind of cool learing prayers in a diff lang and proudly reading it ..

    instead of such normal thigs we go over the top and get people who have no business beingin a school coming in and messing with young minds…

    oh yeah i forget my religion is better than yours syndrome!!!!

  35. I don’t think this is about ‘religious education’ but rather allowing children (who WANT to) to be able to attend jumma prayer without having to leave the building and disrupting the end of their Friday school day. But, for some reason we can’t access that article right now so I can’t re-read it. The think about the Super not knowing what the imam is saying (teaching), I believe, just from a comment that was posted on the article.

    But again, is it mandatory to have an imam lead jumma prayer or is it just mandatory that is be a congregational prayer rather that just the usual prayer that you can do anywhere and on your own? If it is not mandatory then the schools shouldn’t even have to consider it BUT they do have to allow the child to find a corner or a room or a hallway to pray somewhere if he wishes. At least in the US, I have no idea what Canadian law is but Canadians are pretty liberal, no?

  36. School is for learning.
    Religion has nothing to do with schools and I think should not be allowed to encroach into schools. You can pray in your own time, in the breaks, whatever. no need to usurp a cafeteria.
    And certainly no need to round up children whose parents have forced their own belief system on them. Maybe it’s better anyway to leave children alone until they are 18 and then let them choose for themselves.

    In any case, religion has no place in schools, and I think no school should allow religion to creep in, no religious leaders and scholars, no use of school hours for religion, and no usurping of community space for religious purposes.

  37. I totally disagree, Aafke-Art. Just so I know you: are you atheist? I am muslim. Nice to meet you.

  38. It’s an interesting read!

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