Even as the number of students coming to the U.S. from many Muslim countries has fallen since 9/11, the number of Saudi students coming to the U.S. has suddenly skyrocketed.
The kingdom of less than 22 million people has well over 11,000 of its subjects studying in U.S. universities, according to the Saudi government.
Most remarkably, State Department figures indicate that nearly 9,500 of those 11,000 students have come to the U.S. since just October 2005. The number of Saudi students in the U.S. has now crossed pre-9/11 levels.
The students are not concentrated in any particular region of the United States.
“They’re in virtually every state of the union,” said Nail Al-Jubeir, spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington. Saudi students’ organizations can be found in the University of Northern Iowa, Montana State University and the University of Kansas.
“I like it [here] very much, I like the education system, I like the environment,” said Abdullah Almobarraz, a PhD student of information science at the University of North Texas in Denton and the president of that university’s the Saudi Student Association.
“The people here [are] very friendly,” Almobarraz said, adding that he found the climate in Denton similar to that of Saudi Arabia.
Many of the Saudi students are attending programs that teach English as a second language, since they need proficiency in English to study further. Al-Jubeir said that about 3,800 Saudi students are in such programs at U.S. universities. According to Almobarraz, most of the roughly 84 Saudi students at the University of North Texas are still in English language programs.
Saudi students first land in Washington D.C., according to Al-Jubeir, where they have their documents processed at the Saudi cultural mission and go through an orientation where they learn about American culture and society. For many of the students, often 18 or 19 years old, it’s their first time in a Western country.
A major reason for the dramatic rise in the number of Saudi students is that the Saudi government is actively encouraging its students to study abroad under a scheme called the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. The program has already provided thousands of students with full scholarships.
Though the scholarship gives students the opportunity to study in several other countries including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Saudi students overwhelmingly choose to study in the U.S., according to Al-Jubeir.
“[Saudis] always looked up to the U.S. as a place to go for higher education,” Al-Jubeir said. He said that for Saudis, the United States was the destination of choice for university education from the 1970s onwards and that Saudis retain a “strong admiration” for America’s university system.
The other major reason for the rise in the number of Saudi students in the United States is that U.S. visa processing has generally become more streamlined. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government put in place new visa procedures worldwide that mandated among other things, interviewing each visa applicant and getting their fingerprints.
There were special provisions for Saudi Arabia, since 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Saudi. Under the 2002 Homeland Security Act, the Department of Homeland Security oversees the issuing of visas in the kingdom.
The new procedures slowed down the processing of visas all over the world. However, the State Department says things have improved considerably.
“We’re combating the perception that we removed the welcome mat for international students,” said Laura Tischler, State Department Consular Affairs spokeswoman.
Besides making the visa process more efficient, the State Department is also giving student visas priority and letting international students apply earlier for their visas, so they don’t miss classes in the U.S., Tischler said.
While acknowledging the improvements, Al-Jubeir said the American embassy in Riyadh was overwhelmed with visa applications and had become a “big bottleneck.” He said the U.S. consulates in Jeddah and Dahran also need to start issuing visas.
Both governments agree that the scholarship program is strengthening the relationship between the two countries. Al-Jubeir said that most members of the Saudi cabinet are U.S.-educated and added that returning students “have positive things to say about their treatment in the U.S.”