This paper examines how study abroad can be used to describe the state-society relationship in Saudi Arabia from the 1970s through the 1990s. Like many other Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia sent many (more than 9000) of its young people abroad to study since the 1970s to improve their abilities, particularly in the fields of education and economics. The Saudi government believed and continues to believe that using the experience of the developed nations to make improvements in these sectors is urgently needed for the welfare of its society. Study abroad was one of several channels by which the government sought to benefit from the knowledge and experience of Western nations in modernizing Saudi society. This is new research, that the Saudi Study Abroad and its impact on Saudi state and society had not been studied previously.
The paper is divided into two sections, first is modernization, focusing on study abroad and state building. In this section, I showed the opinions of the ulama, the strongest opponents of the study abroad program, who opposed sending students overseas to study on religious grounds, while the state and most intelligentsia, who were the proponents, saw the urgent need for benefiting from the experience of developed countries. In state building issue, I discussed how the Saudi government needed to promote its economic and social developments to build a modern consolidated state. The second section of the paper is titled dominance and focuses on two themes: creating a new loyal technocratic generation and change management. The paper shows the significant role played by the returning students in running governmental institutions, including its ministries, which has strengthened the state’s dominance over the society. The paper also argues that the Saudi rulers have so far succeeded in managing changes through reconciling modernism and traditionalism.
In my research, I relied on a number of written and oral primary sources including government documents such as Five-Years Plans, statistical reports published by the Higher Education Ministry, the Saudi Constitution, and Shura Council Law. Additionally, I used texts of fatwas relating to the matter of study abroad, issued by some Saudi sheikhs. I have also conducted interviews with M.A. and Ph.D. students from the Study Abroad program in the early 1980s. Additionally, I depended on published interviews with some ulama, and professors who graduated from American universities.