Home to many of the leading universities in the Arab region, Saudi Arabia is already a popular study destination for international students from within the region, and also has lots to offer those from further afield. As well as the chance to enroll at a growing number of world-renowned universities, study in Saudi Arabia offers the chance to explore the nation’s distinctive political and cultural environment at first hand, as well as visiting some of the region’s greatest ancient archaeological sites, and soaking up plenty of sun.
With one of the fastest-growing higher education systems in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia offers a number of world-class institutions. Seven Saudi universities are ranked in the QS World University Rankings® 2016/17, and the nation claims 19 of the top 100 universities in the Arab region, in the QS University Rankings: Arab Region 2016. Saudi Arabia has also been featured as having the 36th best higher education system in the world, in the first edition of the QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings.
As in many countries worldwide, universities in Saudi Arabia offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, generally lasting four years, two years and three to four years respectively. While international students are generally accepted into the leading Saudi universities, restrictions amongst other lesser-known universities are likely to vary, and admission for female students is limited to a select few universities and women-only institutions.
Facilities at the leading universities in Saudi Arabia are second to none, thanks to the nation’s ongoing and significant investment in higher education. The wealth invested comes largely from the country’s vast fuel resources – including approximately 20% of the planet’s oil reserves – which has powered the nation’s rapid development over the last half-century, with a strong impact on trade, business, tourism, education, technology, transport, architecture and culture, particularly within the key cities.
Given the importance of the energy sector to the country, it’s no surprise that Saudi universities are especially well-renowned for oil and gas engineering degree programs. Those who wish to stay on and work in the country will also find lucrative graduate career prospects offered in these sectors.
Students new to the country and culture should note that all Saudi universities uphold Islamic laws and beliefs as enforced by the state.
King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals was named the top school in the Middle East for the second time in a row in the QS University Rankings: Arab Region 2016 and ranked 189th worldwide in the QS World University Rankings 2016/17, and was established in 1963. It’s located in the city of Dhahran, an important center for the country’s oil industry, and has a current enrollment of more than 7,000 students. Female students are not admitted.
Despite its name, King Fahd University in fact offers courses in a wide array of subjects, covering traditional disciplines as well as fields of engineering, science and business. In the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2016, it’s ranked among the world’s top 50 universities for mineral and mining engineering, as well as the top 150 for chemical and mechanical engineering.
Established in 1957, King Saud University comes third in the 2016 edition of the QS University Rankings: Arab Region, and 227th in the latest world rankings. Of a similar level of prestige to King Fahd University, it has more of a focus on the life sciences alongside engineering. In the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2016, King Saud University is ranked among the world’s top 200 for pharmacy & pharmacology, computer science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, agriculture and forestry and education and training.
Located in the capital city of Riyadh, King Saud University currently enrolls a total of 51,000 students, of which more than 1,100 are internationals. Female students are admitted.
King Abdulaziz University (KAU) is just one place behind King Saud University in the 2016 Arab rankings, coming fourth within the region, and places joint 283rd in the world rankings. It was founded in 1967 and has more than 82,000 students, with separate campuses for men and women. These are located in the city of Jeddah, and designed by well-known English architect John Elliott.
As of 2016, King Abdulaziz University features in the QS World University Rankings by Subject for mathematics, mechanical engineering, computer science and information systems, medicine and chemistry. It also offers faculties in a wide range of subject areas, including art and design, humanities, sciences, medicine, pharmacy, business, law and dentistry. As well as offering a range of on-campus undergraduate and graduate programs, King Abdulaziz University also teaches a distance learning program.
Other universities in Saudi Arabia which feature in the top 50 of the QS University Rankings: Arab Region 2016 are: Umm Al-qura University (UQU, 18th), King Khalid University (21st), King Faisal University (22nd), Al-imam Mohamed Ibn Saud Islamic University (joint 35th), Alfaisal University (37th), Prince Sultan University (40th) and Qassim University (46th). Nine more Saudi universities are ranked in the top 100.
The conservative capital city of Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s wealthiest cities, combining traditional ideals and cultural values with modern developments in trade, business, architecture and tourism. Dedicated to upholding traditional Islamic values yet undergoing significant change following growing economic prosperity and innovation, Riyadh is a city full of contradictions. This makes it both intriguing and confusing for many foreigners, though there’s also plenty to ensure visitors are comfortable – including swanky hotels overlooking the surrounding desert, and the fact that almost everyone speaks business English. King Saud University, the second-ranked university in Saudi Arabia, is located here.
If Riyadh is the business capital, Jeddah is the nation’s commercial capital, with rather more cosmopolitan and liberal values than elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. A sprawling city, extending along the coast of the Red Sea, Jeddah is home to many government offices, and is well known for its shopping districts, restaurants and cafés. While the buildings in Jeddah crumble more than they gleam, the city’s history remains more intact here than in Riyadh, and Jeddah continues to be the main entry port for those making the pilgrimage toward Mecca and Medina. King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia’s third highest-ranked, is located here.
The capital of the Eastern province and a chief city of the Saudi oil trade, Dammam is on the opposite site of the country to Jeddah, on the coast of the Persian Gulf. With vast beaches and great fishing spots, tourists travelling in the region also visit Dammam for its ancient history and artifacts. Dammam is home to a number of Saudi universities and colleges, and the nation’s number one institution, King Fahd University, is in the neighboring city of Dhahran.
Other cities well worth visiting while you study in Saudi Arabia include Mecca and Medina (known as the two sacred cities of Islam), Sultanah, Al-Ahsa, Ta’if, Khamis Mushait, Buraidah and Khobar.
Entry requirements for universities in Saudi Arabia will vary depending on the institution. Applicants are generally asked for proof of previous academic qualifications and grades, proof of proficiency in English (or Arabic for some programs) with TOEFL/IELTS, official identification and passport photos.
Tuition fees are set by the individual Saudi universities, meaning prices vary widely. In many cases, universities in Saudi Arabia actively seek to recruit international students, offering various incentives and funding assistance. At King Fahd University, for instance, exceptional master’s students can apply for a ‘research assistantship’. This covers tuition fees, as well as providing a monthly stipend for living costs and free furnished accommodation, in return for time spent working in a teaching and research capacity.
Those not receiving funding assistance should expect to pay tuition fees of around US$6,000 for undergraduate programs and considerably more for master’s degrees.
Halls of residence don’t exist in Saudi Arabia, so international students will typically rent private accommodation through their university. The costs of this can be fairly expensive, ranging between 3,500 SR (US$800) and 4,500 SR (US$1,050) for a small apartment in Riyadh, although prices are cheaper the further from the city you venture. In addition to accommodation, a daily budget of between US$50-100 is advised.
No matter who you are or where you’re from, if you wish to study in Saudi Arabia you’ll need an advance visa before being allowed to enter the country. Getting a visa can be easier said than done, due to the tight restrictions for tourists and travelers. Student visa documentation required for overseas students is usually as follows:
Student visa holders will not be permitted to work while they study in Saudi Arabia, but those wishing to stay in the country after graduation will find a good selection of opportunities for work.
The validity of your student visa may also cause confusion as the dates will be noted in lunar months, as used in the Islamic ‘Hijrah’ calendar, rather than the calendar used in the Western world. This can mean the validity of your visa may expire a couple of days sooner than you expect, so be sure to work out your leaving day with this in mind to avoid an over-stay fine.
Israeli citizens, or anyone who is proven to have visited Israel, are likely to be denied visas due to the ongoing conflict between the two countries, but being Jewish is not a disqualifying factor in itself. Reports of discrimination for those who class themselves as Jewish or atheist on their visa applications has been heard of, but those holding no strong religious beliefs or anti-religious beliefs should experience little trouble.
Saudi Arabia is one of few countries to fully implement Islamic law, and international students hailing from Western countries may find it difficult to adapt to the customs and rules this entails. The gender division is perhaps the biggest difference to get used to; men and women are kept separate in many public places and forbidden from communicating or displaying affection (e.g. hand-holding). Family areas exist for married couples, but expect gender boundaries to be much more pronounced here than in other countries around the world.
Overall, you’ll find many locals are friendly and happy to chat to Westerners about places to visit within the region. For women, however, Saudi Arabia may present challenges, particularly if travelling unaccompanied. Religious and cultural customs state that unaccompanied women must adhere to a strict dress code on arrival, and may be prevented from participating in certain activities because of their gender. Islamic dress is not legally required for non-Muslims, but in more conservative regions it is often expected, with failure to conform likely to cause offense.
Alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, so although you’ll find many cafés and restaurants, bars are nonexistent.
If you are from a region with a temperate climate, the extreme desert climate of Saudi Arabia will take more than a little getting used to. In December and January temperatures average at around 15°C (59°F), but during the summer months, expect average daytime temperatures to exceed 50°C (122°F).
If you have hopes of using public transport in Saudi Arabia you may be disappointed, as bus services and trains are rare and taxis tend to be unreliable. If you do find you need to travel, buying a car or hiring a driver is an option. However, females are prohibited from driving and are also advised against hiring male drivers.