RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – If you mention revolution around the Middle East, people get nervous. But a most positive sort of revolution is afoot in Saudi Arabia.

By some estimates, as many as 70,000 Saudi nationals are currently studying in college and graduate school outside of the kingdom under the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program. Nearly 40,000 of these students are going to the United States, making Saudi Arabia – a country that American men cannot themselves visit without a business visa and American women cannot, effectively, visit at all – the No. 4 source of foreign students to the U.S. These numbers are rising by several percentage points per year.

King Abdullah - NY MagThe King Abdullah scholarships aren’t merely “full rides.” They are entire support packages, including assistance for housing, travel, school materials, and even chaperones for women students. Some estimates suggest that the Saudi government spends upwards of $5 billion annually.

This investment is clearly one of the greatest outlays in the history of education, rivaling even former California Gov. Pat Brown’s expansion of the University of California and Cal State systems. The Saudis are serious.

The most obvious benefit for Saudi Arabia is that overseas universities can absorb all those students, whereas local Saudi universities would be bursting. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a demographic boom: it has one of the youngest populations in the world. That means that a huge cohort of college-age students are advancing through high school, without enough spots in Saudi universities to accommodate them.

Of the Saudi students that come to the U.S., many attend colleges that are considered non-selective, and probably are unknown to many Americans. Foreign colleges may offer those students more rigorous educations than they would get at home. They certainly offer a profound cultural experience. (More on that later.)

But Saudi Arabia is not merely outsourcing their education to other countries. In fact, for all the money the Kingdom is spending on scholarships, it is spending a king’s ransom building up its own universities. A centerpiece is Princess Noura University, on the southern outskirts of Riyadh. I have not been on campus (I doubt that I would be allowed, given the kingdom’s notorious practice of gender segregation), but even from the highway one thing is clear: with its towering mosques, triumphal arches, and gleaming academic buildings, it is the most physically impressive new campus built in the past 50 years. Anywhere.

These dual programs – that of sending students overseas while also building academic palaces in the Kingdom – embody the buzzword that you hear time and again around Saudi Arabia: contrast. The contrasts in Saudi are enough to make anyone’s head spin, but almost all of them—particularly those that involve the treatment of women and freedom of speech—revolve around the tension between tradition and modernization, and between openness and insularity.

Saudi Arabia aggressively recruits foreign companies to invest in the Kingdom; and yet, women still are not allowed to drive. Much (though not all) of the internet streams freely into the Kingdom; and yet, non-citizens cannot enter the country without a specific purpose. Un-chaperoned women cannot enter at all. Freedom of speech? Live music? Movies? Forget it.

Meanwhile, more than half the students on the King Abdullah Scholarships are studying in, of all places, the United States. That sounds odd coming from a country that espouses many values that are anathema to most Americans, doesn’t it?

Saudi Girls

It does, but only if you believe that Saudi Arabia, or at least its leadership, does not want to change. Autocracy being what it is, the Saudi government can just as easily forbid its citizens from studying abroad as it can permit them – much more easily, in fact. But they don’t.

What’s difficult for many Americans to grasp is that, for the most part, the Saudi government is more liberal than is the population at large (making America’s “red-blue” divide look like a Rothko painting). Handing out scholarships – who could be against scholarship? – is the government’s end-run around those more conservative elements.

Instead, it’s heartening to think that the scholarships are the government’s way of not only developing a more capable workforce (professional skills are generally lacking in a country built on state patronage and oil revenues) but also of subtly, gradually promoting liberal reforms in the country. Whatever tensions persist between the West and the Islamic world surely dissipate when young people live, learn, and carouse alongside one another. All the diplomats in the world probably can’t do what a pizza, a ballgame, and some buffalo wings might do.

At the same time, the colleges cannot let all the learning take place at study breaks. Saudi students, like all students, must study too. It’s no secret, though, that colleges, especially less-selective ones, are eager to attract full-paying foreign students, even when they come with weak academic credentials. But my hope – and expectation – is that these schools recognize the extraordinary opportunity they face. The average professor probably has not been to Saudi Arabia and therefore may not appreciate the enormity of the cultural experiment that is taking place under his lectern. Same for school administrators. It is up to them to ensure that Saudi students enjoy not merely a four-year vacation but indeed a genuine education – one that could change the world, or at least one corner of it.

Some in Saudi Arabia fear that these scholarship students will come back to a Kingdom of frustration: how to stay sober, pious, and chaste in the desert after living in Boston, Miami, or Los Angeles?

I don’t have an answer for that. My hope, though, is that rather than pine for American loucheness, the graduates of the King Abdullah Scholarship program will return to their country with a renewed enthusiasm for reform. Obviously, a bunch of 20-somethings cannot change one of the world’s most conservative countries overnight – nor should they. There are different types of revolutions, and some inflict more pain and tumult than others.

The scholarships themselves are, I think, the government’s signal that it is willing to entertain gradual change. Students will return with greater competencies and more open minds than ever before. They face the chance to build what can be one of the 21st century’s greatest, most fascinating success story, based on greater openness, diminished segregation, diversified business, and, most importantly, the demise of extremism and mistrust.

These prospects should, so long as students are properly inspired and well taught, overshadow the temptations of whatever frat parties, beach weekends, and Hollywood blockbusters they will have left behind.

Josh Stephens is ArborBridge’s Director of International Development. He can be reached at [email protected]