Saudi Arabia’s neglected expatriate students

While I was in Jeddah last month I received a telephone call from a
young woman. She was timid, nervous, upset and desperate. She was a stranger, but her story touched me as it should touch all women.

This young woman had been attending medical school in Saudi Arabia and was in her fourth year when her father died. As her sole benefactor
her father had gone to great lengths to ensure that her tuition was
paid. He saved his money from the income of his job and apparently had several other sources of income from business acquaintances that
helped fund his daughter’s education. As customary, he spared her the
details of the source of her tuition so she could maintain her dignity
and focus on her studies.
When the father died, the daughter was left without parents or any
male family members. She no longer had the money to continue her
education and the medical school suspended her studies and asked to
leave campus. The Ministry of Higher Education turned down her
requests for a scholarship.

My initial reaction was that this was impossible. How could an
intelligent, well-spoken and committed Saudi woman be denied a medical degree in a country where there are so few Saudi physicians, let alone female doctors? The Saudi medical community recruits hundreds of foreign doctors to fill its ranks, but snubs a medical student in its own backyard. Surely, a private scholarship would be available to her.
But the crux of her problem soon revealed itself. After further
questioning, I discovered this desperate woman was not a Saudi
citizen. Her mother was Egyptian and her father originated from a
small African country. Yet everything about her -- from her demeanor,
language, tone and even manners -- shouted that she was Saudi. She was born in Saudi Arabia, and knows no other country and speaks no other language other than Saudi. She is Saudi down to the bone. But she is not afforded any of the privileges of being Saudi because her parents were born elsewhere.
It’s highly unlikely that she will succeed in obtaining financial
assistance in the form of charity from an emir or sheikh. She
certainly doesn’t have the support system that Saudis receive when
their parents have died and they need financial help.
This young woman’s plight illustrates a growing problem in Saudi
society about where these children -- born in Saudi Arabia to legal or
illegal resident parents -- belong in society.

We have quickly become a country of parallel societies: Saudis and the
invisible class of a new generation of young people denied an
education and meaningful employment.
Let’s not talk of deportation. It’s impractical, costly and inhuman.
Exactly how will the Saudi government deport children to a country
they do not know or ever stepped foot on? And let’s remember that many parents of these children entered the country legally on Umrah and Haj visas and simply overstayed those visas. We can’t punish the children of overstayers by denying them the basics of an education and jobs. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia will be burdened with caring for this
invisible class of people.
I think it would be a fine gesture of the Saudi government to extend
citizenship to children born in the country to legal or illegal
parents, but that’s rather naïve. Just looking at the citizenship
requirements document issued by the government a few years ago reads like a recipe for failure for every expatriate who has the audacity to apply.

The difference the government can make is to extend all educational
benefits to children born in Saudi Arabia to foreign parents. Give
them scholarship opportunities for higher education and even send them abroad on the promise they will return and practice their profession in the Kingdom.

I dread the moment when I must contact this young medical student and tell her there is not much hope of continuing her studies. Saudi
Arabia will lose a female physician at time when even losing one
potential doctor should not be acceptable. We can take the easy route
and continue to recruit foreign doctors. Some will stay a lifetime.
Others will leave after a few years. The cycle of recruitment will
continue and we will be no closer to filling the ranks of the Saudi
medical community with Saudis. And yes, that includes the Egyptian
medical student who calls Saudi Arabia her home, her country and now her mother and father.

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About Sabria Jawhar

Sabria Jawhar is a Saudi columnist and reporter for the Jeddah-based English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette. She currently lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom, where she is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle. She is considered one of the leading female journalists in Saudi Arabia, where she covered breaking news events at a time when such news coverage was open only to men. Her news beats included the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior. In the summer of 2005, she earned a Fellowship at the prestigious Korean Press Foundation and Yonsei Communication Research Institute in Seoul, South Korea. In 2007 she was a panelist in the United Nations 15th International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East in Tokyo, Japan. She earned her bachelor’s of arts degree in English language and literature at the King Abdul Aziz University and a master’s degree in applied linguistics at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah. Her column archives can be found at her website

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