Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Saudi Arabia: Will the minister do it? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An unpleasant surprise hit Saudis like a thunderbolt. After six years of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ program for foreign scholarships- responsible for sending over 120 thousand students to study abroad- what can be considered as the personal opinions of some trends highlighting “the danger of scholarships”, seems to have penetrated an official institution within the state. Which institution? The Ministry of Education, the closest ministry, in effect, to the Ministry of Higher Education. As a result, the latter sends the students [on scholarships] and the former warns against it!

Is it true that the public education curriculum, instead of preparing students for the university stage, strives to warn them of the “risks of scholarships”, as happened in one hadith lesson [a study of traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad] for secondary school students? In this lesson, the teacher emphasized the warning that many of those who enrolled in scholarships “returned [to Saudi Arabia] filled with the Western spirit, opinions and mentality, and repeated in their country the echo of their orientalist professors”. The hadith lesson went on to conclude that those returning from scholarships “had become a curse upon their communities”. (al-Hayat, 14th September)

Here I did not expect, nor did I wait of course, for the Saudi Minister of Education, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, to review the curriculum. But I know that there is a vast body within the ministry called the “Agency of Planning and Development”, which is responsible for the preparation of study plans and curricula for all stages of public education, its categories, and its development “in line with the education system in Saudi Arabia, and appropriate, modern, educational trends”. I also did not expect the minister, or any of his senior officials, to agree with the “risks of scholarships” discourse which their ministry seems to have adopted officially. In fact, I will continue in my expectations to say that [I expected] senior officials, and our Ministry of Education in general, to be extremely angry at the Agency of Planning and Development [for allowing this discourse to be taught to students]. This is one of the most important branches of the ministry, and a means of developing education, which after all is one of the most important goals of the entire country.

So, I expect, and this is the last time I will do so, that a senior, or even junior, ministry official will emerge sooner rather and later to say: “What happened does not represent the ministry in any way, and we, as the Ministry of Education, cannot act against the directions of the state. Thus, we have decided to abolish lessons warning of the dangers of scholarships from the hadith curriculum, and we will undertake an urgent investigation to find out what really happened, and likewise who was responsible for facilitating the approach and agreeing to teach it to students. The results of the investigation will be announced a week from now. Then, I can assure you that the Minister of Education will transform the anger currently present in society, with regards to the ‘actions’ of some of his officials, into satisfaction. The public will see a typical example of how a minister, any minister, can deal with errors that have been committed, no matter how senior he is”. Please your Excellency, issue a statement such as this.

All that remains is to point out that the best, and most effective, responses to the “risks of scholarships” discourse came from high school students themselves, through online forums and social networking websites. They scoffed at these warnings, to the extent that they satirically called for society to respond to them, provoking parents to prevent their children from enrolling in scholarships. The reason behind this satirical warning is that tens of thousands of Saudi students apply for the scholarship program annually, with only the lucky ones accepted, and thus some school pupils are sarcastically promoting the warnings in order to achieve a better chance of acceptance next time!

With regards to our satirical students, I regret to tell them you are too late: Society saw through this tactic long ago. Indeed, those closest to the incitement project against scholarships are those who are most keen to be enrolled. Therefore the scholarship convoy is going along as planned, and demand for it is increasing amongst both sexes. The troublesome efforts of some will not cause society to relapse backwards, even if these efforts are taking place within the corridors of government!