It might come as a surprise to many, but one of the leading countries in terms of sending their children to study in the United States is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Saudi Arabia has long had a complicated history with the United States, filled with a mix of distrust, curiosity, and mutual needs. Many assumed the relationship to be permanently ruptured after the blue-sky and fire-red terror of September 11th, when 15 out of the 19 hijackers were from the KSA.

This turned out to not be the case. There were recriminations and tension, partially exacerbated by a wave of anti-Saudi sentiment in the States, but that largely subsided, on both official and personal levels. Enough so that in the last year alone, the number of college students from Saudi Arabia in the United States increased by over 30%, spurred largely by a government program inside the Kingdom. And, as we’ve seen in the past, when college enrollment increases, high school enrollment starts to uptick as well. It is important for your international program to be on top of this. This week, we’ll take a look at the KSA- a brief glimpse at its history that will help us understand why their relationship with the United States is even more important than ever, and then how, as an international recruiter, you can use that to benefit your school and the youth of Saudi Arabia.


A gleaming Mecca, built up with oil money, towers over the Kaaba, the ancient symbol of Islam.

Desert, Language, and Islam

It’s impossible to sum up a country with just a few words, but if you had to, those would be the three. When writing this summation, though, you would have to be wary of marking these as different categories, as they influenced and shaped each other, winding triple destinies throughout the centuries. There is a fourth, of course, but that comes later, as an amplifier and a distorter.

Let’s start with the desert. It isn’t a stretch to say that the Kingdom occupies largely inhospitable territory. A huge swath is taken up by the Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, hundreds of thousands of miles of pitiless sand, rock, and scorching, leering sun. For centuries before the modern state was formed, nomadic tribes would traverse this and somewhat more lively deserts between oases, especially the trade cities of Mecca and Medina. In the early centuries, the Arabic language was formed, given life, with its warren of inflections and meanings, its complex rules, and the way it reflects its birthplace, full of poetic gardens in thorny landscapes.

In the 7th century, Islam thundered onto the scene, as Mecca was where the prominent trader Mohammed received the revelations that would change the world. The political and military maneuverings that converted Mecca and Medina were quickly subsumed by the tide of Islam that swept over the region and the world. The religion believed itself one of global destiny, and given that it went from a sandy and dingy desert outpost to a series of kingdoms stretching from India to Spain in barely 100 years, one would have been hard-pressed to argue.

All conquerors are changed by their conquered, but one permanent imprint that the Muslim Empires had was language- Arabic was suddenly spoken from Morocco to Iraq, arguably the largest geographic and linguistic dynasty the world has ever known. And though kingdoms kept shifting, the Arabian heartland was the soul of Islam, both in religion and language (indeed, Muslims believe that Arabic is the language of God, and that any Quran written in any other language is just a translation- it isn’t the actual Word).


But still, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire over the course of hundreds of years, Saudi Arabia was still a backwater. This changed dramatically at the turn of last century, when the Industrial Revolution proved the need for oil, and the land of the Arabs was found to be sitting on a seemingly endless ocean. Combined with WWI, and the help/interference of the British, led by romantic figures like Lawrence of Arabia, the House of Saud, one of the most powerful on the Peninsula, overthrew the Ottomans, and the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed. In return, all the British asked for was endless oil and political domination.

We won’t get into the twists that led to America supplanting the UK as the dominant partner in Saudi politics, or the details of the royal families embrace, manipulation of, and manipulation by, the ultra-religious Wahhabi clerics. It also isn’t necessary to get into how oil wealth quickly changed the nation, especially its royals. The sudden influx of unreal money and Western influence can be seen in any number of history books, or in great novels like Abdul-Rahman al-Munif’s breathtaking Cities of Salt books.

There were two major sticking points for the Sauds. One was their mono-economy. Oil was all they had, and they used that to import vast armies of foreign labor, to run everything and to do the menial work, leaving their citizenry without work. This seemed ideal, but it leads to restless behavior and boredom. This was filled by the deal they cut with the Wahhabis, who controlled education. Dogmatism and boredom is a lethal combination. At first they were content to send religious fighters abroad, to Afghanistan, Bosnia, or Chechnya, but then the fanatics turned their sites on the Kingdom itself, and the Kingdom had to fight back. They did this both in a military sense, and by trying to change the mindset of a generation.


That’s where your international program comes in. While they certainly aren’t trying to be secular, and couldn’t be working class if they tried, the KSA is attempting to broaden the educational experience of its youth while at the same time preparing them to actually work. Very few like work, but enforced idleness is its own poison.

So Saudi students are flocking to America, and it is becoming more and more competitive. In our next article, we’ll talk about how your school can attract great Saudi students. It’s safe to say that with the eventual rise of green energy and the decline of oil supplies, Saudi Arabia will be entering a new phase of its relationship with the world, especially with the United States. Your school can help the next generation navigate that peacefully and successfully.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.