Want to study abroad, but can’t decide where? Perhaps you’ve considered some of the biggest international destinations – the US, UK, Germany and the like – but none of them has quite captured your imagination.
If you want something completely different, read on for our top seven reasons to consider universities in Saudi Arabia. Not least among these is the fact that Saudi Arabian universities have a very strong presence in the latest edition of the QS University Rankings: Arab Region.
1. Saudi Arabian universities are growing in prominence
With a steady increase in government spending on higher education, Saudi Arabia has taken active steps over the past decade or so to enhance its universities and research facilities and become a leading knowledge economy. With 19 Saudi Arabian universities ranked in the top 100 of the QS University Rankings: Arab Region 2016, and four universities in the global top 250 in the QS World University Rankings by Faculty for engineering and technology, Saudi Arabia is emerging as a strong hub for higher education, particularly in STEM subjects.
2. Amazing travel opportunities
One of the many perks of living in Saudi Arabia is just how much travelling you can get done whenever you have a spare bit of time. A short drive from the Red Sea and an hour and a half’s flight from Dubai or Oman, Saudi Arabia is in close proximity of some of the world’s most beautiful sights and top travelling destinations.
3. Large and diverse international community
With many institutions offering generous scholarships to international students (in some cases even full tuition waivers), and most courses taught in English, many Saudi Arabian universities have large numbers of international students already enrolled – as well as catering to the many expat families living in the country. If you study abroad in Saudi Arabia, you’ll have the chance to make friends with both locals and students from all over the world. And, if you decide to work in Saudi Arabia after your studies, you’ll most likely cross paths with young professionals from a host of different cultural backgrounds.
4. Save money
Keen to become more international, many universities in Saudi Arabia are keen to attract international students, and offer various funding incentives and scholarships. In addition, the costs of living in Saudi Arabia are relatively low compared to many parts of the world (around 37% lower than in the US as of June 2016, according to Numbeo.com). Renting a one-bedroom apartment in a city center will cost you around US$400 per month, a liter of gasoline roughly US$0.16 and a cappuccino about US$2.57.
5. Opportunities to stay and work in Saudi Arabia
Developments in the Saudi economy have opened up opportunities for international graduates to work for a fixed number of years in finance and manufacturing, particularly the oil, IT, healthcare, banking, teaching, telecommunications and construction industries. Major companies based in Saudi Arabia include AE Systems, Cisco Systems, Procter & Gamble, Schlumburger, Nestlé and Siemens. Note that you will need a sponsor to help you secure your employment Visa, though this will typically be your employer.
6. Enhance your CV with valuable international experience
If you decide to return home after your degree, the experience of studying abroad in Saudi Arabia – perhaps with a short period of work experience – will help you gain a global outlook both broadly speaking and within your field, which will in turn add value to your CV. The broad range of soft skills gained from studying abroad, along with specific understanding of Saudi Arabian professional and cultural contexts, will help you to impress recruiters in all kinds of roles and sectors.
7. Because shawarma…
Have you factored national cuisine into your decision about where to study abroad? Basically thin slices of meat rolled up into a pita with tahini, a generous dose of hummus, pickles, vegetables, and usually served with fries, shawarmas are Saudi Arabia’s national sandwich. Not to be missed!
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.
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.
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.
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