Saudis Again Head to U.S. Campuses

Saudi accounting major Saad Mohammed Abuabat, 23, studies at the Catholic University library.
Saudi accounting major Saad Mohammed Abuabat, 23, studies at the Catholic University library. "Who doesn't want to study in the U.S.?" he asks. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 11, 2006

A record number of nearly 11,000 Saudis are pursuing higher education in the United States, reversing a years-long decline in students coming from the oil-rich kingdom, particularly after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The surge is a result of recent measures taken by the U.S. and Saudi governments, including a major Saudi government scholarship program for study abroad, launched last year, and implementation of more organized procedures for issuing student visas by the U.S. Embassy in the kingdom.

The education initiative, which also envisions a second scholarship program to enable U.S. scholars to study and teach in Saudi Arabia, arose from a mutual desire to counter growing hostility between the populations of both nations sparked by the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi citizens, according to officials on both sides and Middle East experts.

"At the government level, relations are strong. . . . But at the popular level, there's a huge amount of mistrust and antipathy," said F. Gregory Gause III, a University of Vermont professor who specializes in Saudi affairs. "This [scholarship program] is a good step towards trying to dissipate some of that mistrust and antipathy."

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said in a recent interview that the large number of Saudis choosing to study in the United States signifies "that Saudi youth still look upon the United States as a means of achieving their ambitions in life by acquiring the skills and the know-how that your academic institutions provide for."

Saad Mohammed Abuabat, 23, an accounting major at Catholic University who arrived 10 months ago, agreed. "Who doesn't want to study in the U.S.?" he asked. "I don't know anyone."

A degree from the United States "means a lot" to companies at home, Abuabat said. "They prefer you to [a] guy with [a] degree from Saudi Arabia."

Saudi cultural attache Mazyed Ibrahim Almazyed said that 10,936 Saudis are enrolled at 733 U.S. educational institutions across the country. He said he expects an additional 3,000 students to arrive next semester, bringing the total to about 14,000. Virginia ranks fourth -- behind California, Florida and Colorado -- in the number of Saudis at its schools: 637.

The number of Saudi students now here surpasses the peak academic year of 1980-81, when 10,440 Saudis were enrolled in U.S. schools, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that works with the State Department. The current figure is also nearly twice the 5,579 Saudi students counted here by the institute in September 2001.

State Department officials interviewed for this article declined to be named. And the department's public affairs office declined to provide an official to speak on the record about the increased number of Saudi students here. But in an e-mail statement, Thomas Farrell, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs, said, "[T]he significant growth we are seeing in educational exchange between our two countries can only increase the mutual benefit derived from leadership development, skills-building, understanding and respect."

Turki, the Saudi ambassador, said the bilateral education effort grew out of the April 2005 meeting between President Bush and King Abdullah, then the crown prince, in Crawford, Tex., when the two "agreed that they would encourage more Saudis to come to the United States," whether as students, business people or medical patients.

Even before the Crawford meeting, "there was unanimity of opinion that the Saudi-U.S. relationship, especially in the area of creating clear understanding between Americans and Saudis, had suffered from neglect," one State Department official said.

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