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Applying to universities in Saudi Arabia

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 & living costs

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.

Student visas

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:

  • A confirmed place on a degree program at a recognized Saudi university;
  • Your original birth certificate;
  • A medical certificate proving good health signed by a licensed doctor;
  • Proof of payment of all relevant visa fees;
  • A police report of your criminal history;
  • Approval for travel from your home government.

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.

Practical information

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.

About Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the largest Arab state in Western Asia by land area and the second-largest in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves which are concentrated largely in the Eastern Province. Oil accounts for more than 95% of exports and 70% of government revenue, although the share of the non-oil economy has been growing recently. This has facilitated the transformation of an underdeveloped desert kingdom into one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Arab country located on the Persian Gulf and is the largest country in the Middle East, occupying 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula. The country has borders with Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen and Oman. Most of the country is desert or semi-desert, although the west coastline along the Red Sea has forested areas. Saudi Arabia has a lengthy history due to its strategic location near major trade routes and is best known as the birthplace of the prophet of Islam, Mohammed. Major cities in the country include Mecca and Medina, where millions of Muslim pilgrims visit each year. With 25 percent of the world’s oil reserves, the country is one of the wealthiest in the world and contains significant modern infrastructure. The currency is the Saudi Riyal.

Saudi Arabia has mostly a desert climate, with high temperatures during the day and lower temperatures at night. In Riyadh, the average high is 43 degrees C and the average low is 29 degrees C in July, while the average high is 19 degrees C in January, with an average low of 11 degrees C. The record low in Riyadh is -1 degrees C and the record high is 53 degrees C.

Music and dance both have strong traditions in Saudi Arabia. The country’s national dance is Al Ardha and is a sword dance based on Bedouin traditions. Belly dancing for women is also very popular. Sports are also very popular, especially soccer and basketball.

Cost of Living
The cost of living in Saudi Arabia is fairly high. Even on a tight budget, a student will likely require at least $US 1,500 per month. Student visas do not grant employment rights.

Visa Requirements
Students who are citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council nations do not need a visa to study in Saudi Arabia; however, all other students must have a visa.To apply for a visa, a student must have a recent police reports and a medical report certifying the student has no contagious diseases. Students with families must also provide marriage and birth certificates for family members. Students can apply for visas with the Saudi embassy or consulate in their home country. Once students have a visa, they should pay particular attention to expiration dates, as the Saudi system uses the lunar calendar instead of the Western solar calendar.

Study in Saudi Arabia

Higher Education in Saudi Arabia
Higher education in Saudi Arabia is consistent with the US higher education system, but modified to accommodate Islamic traditions and customs. The first university, the King Saud University, was founded in Riyadh in 1957. The Ministry of Higher Education oversees all higher education in the country, with a particular focus on scientific research at the government universities. More than 200,000 students are currently enrolled at Saudi universities and colleges; about half of the students are women.

Why Study in Saudi Arabia?
International students will find a welcoming environment in Saudi Arabia, and the government even provides special scholarship programs specifically for non-Saudi students. Saudi Arabia is one of the best places in the world for master’s programs in Islamic studies. Studying in the country also provides a full Arabic cultural and language immersion for students not from the Middle East or for non-native Arab speakers. In addition to Islamic studies, modern Saudi institutions provide a wide variety of master’s degree programs in art, science, engineering, agriculture, medicine, education, computer science and information science. Many master’s degree programs are taught in English, especially those in technical areas such as engineering.

The higher education system includes 21 government universities, 19 teacher’s colleges for men, 80 teacher’s colleges for women, 37 colleges and institutes for health, 12 technical colleges and 24 private universities and colleges. Universities and colleges offer graduate programs that include both master’s and doctoral degrees. Private universities and institutions are non-profit organizations that complement government universities. Most government universities are general universities, but some specialize in certain areas such as petroleum and health.

Tuition and Program Duration
Citizens of Saudi Arabia are provided with free education and books. Many international students study for free as well. For example, all students admitted to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology are provided with a fellowship that covers tuition, housing, medical and dental coverage, and about $US 30,000 annual living expenses.

Academic Year
The first semester classes generally begin in early September and run through early December, followed by final exams. The second semester begins in early February and runs through early May, followed by final exams.

Post-Graduate Opportunities
There are many opportunities for post-graduate employment within Saudi Arabia, both for citizens and international students. Saudi Arabia employs roughly 8 million foreign workers, although most of those are in positions of manual labor. Still, there are many opportunities for graduates with master’s degrees in the petroleum and financial industries. Other strong industries for international workers include information technology, healthcare, teaching, construction and telecommunications. International students wanting to remain in Saudi Arabia for employment must first find a job, at which point the potential employer will apply for the appropriate work permit.

Health Insurance
Saudi Arabia requires all foreign nationals to have medical insurance. Students not covered by a health care system in their home country will need to purchase private health insurance before arriving in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi National Day is September 23, when the country celebrates the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society and, outside of large hotels and malls, credit cards are not widely accepted. However, ATMs are widely available.

Within cities, taxis are the best means of transportation.

Information for Foreign Students in Saudi Arabia Getting There Saudi Arabia has 3 international airports at Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina and Dammam. The airport at Dhahran is now closed to civil traffic, so passengers to the Eastern Region now fly into Dammam, or into nearby Bahrain (which is much better connected) and then cross into Saudi Arabia by car. Saudi Arabia is served by the national airline Saudi Arabian Airlines, often referred to by its Arabic name Saudia. Saudia has a reasonable safety record, but many of their planes are on the old side and the quality of service, in-flight entertainment etc tends to be low. Virtually all Gulf airlines and most major European airlines fly into Saudi. During the Hajj, numerous charter flights supplement the scheduled airlines. Foreigners living in Saudi Arabia can often get sensational discounts on outbound flights during the Hajj. Airlines from Muslim countries are flying in many loads of pilgrims, and do not not want to go back empty.

Obtaining a Visa
Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive travel policies in the world, and advance visas are required for all foreigners desiring to enter. The only significant exception is citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations. Also exempt from visa requirements are foreigners transiting through airports for less than eighteen hours, but many other entry requirements, such as the dress code and restrictions on unaccompanied females, still apply. Nationals of Israel and those with evidence of visiting Israel will be denied visas, although merely being Jewish in and of itself is not a disqualifying factor. (There are, however, anecdotal reports of would-be visitors who tick the ‘Jewish’ or ‘Atheist’ boxes on their visa application having trouble.) Saudis prefer not to grant visas to unaccompanied women, but work permits are common in some fields – esp. nurses, teachers, maids – and possible for anyone if your sponsor has enough connections. The fun doesn’t end when you get the visa, since visas do not state their exact expiry date. While the validity is noted in months, these are not Western months but lunar months, and you need to use the Islamic calendar to figure out the length: a three-month visa issued on ’29/02/22′ (22 Safar 1429, 1 March 2008) is valid until 29/05/22 (22 Jumada al-Awwal 1429, 28 May 2008), not until 1 June 2008! Depending on visa type, the validity can start from the date of issue or the date of first entry, and multiple-entry visas may also have restrictions regarding how many days at a time are allowed (usually 28 days per visit) and/or how many days total are allowed during the validity period.

Hotels of all types are available throughout the Kingdom. Most tourist cities (i.e. Makkah, Medina, Taif, Al Abha) will also have very affordable and spacious shigka-maafroosha (short-term furnished rental apartments). Shigka-maafroosha owners generally loiter in hotel lobbies. Often, they will approach civilized-looking people (generally families) and make an offer. Prices for shigka-mafrooshas and small hotels are always negotiable to a great degree. Smaller hotels will only accept cash, normally in advance.

Cost of Living
Prices are generally fairly expensive: figure on US$50/100/200 for budget, midrange and splurge-level daily travel costs.

The Saudi currency is the Saudi riyal (SAR). Saudi Arabia is still largely a cash society, and credit card acceptance is surprisingly poor outside luxury hotels and malls. ATMs are ubiquitous, although those of many smaller banks do not accept foreign cards; Samba, SABB and ANB are probably your best bets. Moneychangers can be found in souks, but are rare elsewhere. Foreign currencies are generally not accepted by merchants.

The three mobile operators in Saudi, incumbent Al Jawal, Emirati rival Mobily and Kuwaiti newcomer Zain (Vodafone Network) are fiercely competitive, with good coverage (in populated areas) and good pricing. A starter pack with prepaid SIM and talktime starts from about SR 75, and you can sign up in most any larger mobile shop (bring your passport). Local calls are under SR 0.5/minute, while calls overseas are around or less than SR 2/min.

There are no major health risks for traveling in Saudi Arabia: water is generally drinkable and food is usually, but not always, hygienic. No vaccinations are required for general travel to the Kingdom, but for pilgrims joining the Hajj and its extraordinary concentrations of pilgrims from all corners of the globe, a comprehensive series of vaccinations is required as a condition for entry. The Kingdom has a wide-reaching national health-care system, but the services provided by this program are quite basic. Private hospitals are often run with the participation of foreign partners. These facilities range from fairly rudimentary to very advanced and very expensive. Pharmacies are widely available and prescriptions are not required for most medications. Psychoactive medications are tightly controlled and available only through government pharmacies.

One of the biggest dangers in Saudi Arabia is the haphazard driving; thus, pick your drivers carefully and always wear your seatbelt if available. In general, keep a low profile and use your common sense, especially if you are a single woman.

Within cities, taxis are the only practical means of transportation. Standardized throughout the country, metered fares start at SR 5 and tick up at SR 1.60/km, but outside Riyadh you’ll often have to haggle the price in advance. Solo passengers are expected to sit up front next to the driver: this has the advantages of being next to the full blast of the air-conditioner and making it easier to wave your hands to show the way.












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