Saudi Arabia Connection

Sultana N. Nahar

At IECHE 2014 with Dr. Khaled Al Anqari

At IECHE 2014: Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Khaled Al Anqari gives Sultana a box of MOHE information about current education and research status.

Al Faisaliah Hotel in background

The cone shaped structure in the background, the Al Faisaliah Hotel where the delegates stayed, is called the Jewel of the Middle East.

Recognition with a mongram of Taibah University

Recognition with a Monogram of Taibah University and a citation from the President. The Head of women’s college, Dr. Inass, and Vice Dean of the Faculty of Science, Dr. Hanadi Zahid, are in the picture.

With 2 faculty members of Princess Nora University

With two faculty members of Princess Nora University.

Discussion with Prof. Laila Babsail

Discussion with Professor Laila Babsail of King Saud University and Professor Nesreen Ateqad of Prince Sultan University

For the last five years, the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) of Saudi Arabia has been holding the International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education (IECHE) in the Riyadh International Exhibition Center. At the 2014 conference in April 438 universities from 36 countries participated. The US had the most prominent presence with 108 institutions. Universities exhibited their academic programs in booths. They could also buy workshop time to present program details. A number of participating international institutions are MOHE invitees and the Ohio State University (OSU) was one of these. I led the OSU team of 3 members. Being a Muslim, I felt blessed for the opportunity to visit the holy cities of Makkah and Medina before the start of the conference.

My trip objectives:
  • Promote OSU programs, particularly the new STEM ER (science, technology, engineering, mathematics research and education) faculty training program under the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative award.
  • Promote the International Society of Muslim Women in Science (ISMWS) to encourage and help Muslim women in science education and professionally in all areas of science and applied science.
  • Promote the American Physical Society (APS) and explain how APS can help physicists become part of the international scientific community.
  • Observe status of scientific research and initiate collaborations with interested groups.

At IECHE, I met Dr. Khaled Al Anqari, the Minister of Higher Education and discussed these objectives. He was supportive and assigned Deputy Minister, Dr. Mohammad Al Ohali, for the next step. I also met Deputy Minister Dr. Ahmad Alsaif for discussion. Our STEM faculty training project received the most attention as it meets one of their basic needs. Dr. Al Ohali, who has a Ph.D. in physics from Duke University, commented that the program was “super good” and they have put it on their agenda for discussion.

At IECHE the US booths had the largest crowd compared to those from other countries and our OSU booth was one of the most popular ones. There were queries on admission requirements and university ranking for many different departments and fields. We were asked about distance learning, pre- and post-doctoral research exchange programs and teacher training. I met deans, vice presidents, and professors from several universities, including Umm Al-Qura (Makkah), King Khaled (Riyadh), Al Hudud ash Shamaliyah (Arar, Northern Border Province), Jazan (Jizan, Jizan Province), and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM, Dhahran, Eastern Province), Prince Sultan University (Riyadh), American University in Beirut, University of British Columbia, and Universiti Teknologi in Malaysia. All showed interest in the STEM faculty training project and ISMWS, and wanted to have the materials emailed to them. I also spoke with representatives of the Education and Research Committee of the Majlis Alshura Council. One of them, Dr. Elham Hassanain, is a Physics professor. Majlis Alshura, has now a fixed number of educated female members whose positions were introduced a few years ago by King Abdullah. These members are appointed by the government and play an important role by giving their input in making decisions on women as well as educational issues in the government."

I visited four universities: Taibah University (Medina, Medina Province in the west), Dammam University (Dammam, Eastern Province) and King Saud and Princess Norah Universities in Riyadh. It was impressive to observe great progress in education and to meet many scientists, particularly female scientists, who are largely unknown outside the country. In the next decade Saudi Arabia should experience rapid progress in education and research. There are about 32 public and 10 private universities in Saudi Arabia. Most of the public universities are either new or converted to a new university from a branch campus of an older university. While all universities accommodate both men and women, KFUPM has only male students, but expects to be co-ed in the future, and Princess Norah University is solely for females. Almost all universities have large enrollment. Taibah, Dammam, King Saud, and Princess Norah Universities each has over 60,000 students. Taibah University has over 500 physics majors. The government is building laboratories for both courses and research. Although research is not well advanced in these universities, there are a few exceptions. Taibah University received a $3M research grant during the last academic year for research initiatives and one pharmacy faculty member, Professor Hosam Gharib, has about $1M for his research projects. In each place I visited, I met many enthusiastic faculty members and students. There were both non-Saudi and Saudi faculty members, but the students are mostly Saudis. Saudi students study free while non-Saudi students pay full tuition.

I gave multiple seminars at institutions I visited, including a workshop on atomic structure code at King Saud University. People at each university expressed a keen interest in research collaborations. They also appreciated our STEM ER faculty program for Ph.D. students, but unlike MOHE they commented that they are not quite ready for it since the best students, which our project aims at, are sent to developed countries for the Ph.D. degree. Upon return, these students are hired by the major universities. Those who cannot make it outside Saudi Arabia do their Ph.D. in Saudi universities and are hired by smaller universities.

I would like to comment on the black outfit (called abaya) of the two women, Dr. Innas and Dr. Hanadi, in the picture where I am holding the university monogram from President Dr. Almazroa. Black abaya (with some variations in different countries) is the most common traditional outfit for a Muslim woman. She wears it as her choice. She feels it easy to move around without someone's unnecessary attention and keeps her clean from outside dirt. However, inside she always wears something very decent. Inside the four Saudi women’s colleges I visited, almost everyone was wearing fashionable western dress and with various hair styles. They wear abaya whenever they step out or have their picture taken. At IECHE, all international female participants wore black abaya given as gifts by Dr. Al Anqari of MOHE. It was pleasant to see that they were wearing the abayas happily and some even went to Riyadh markets to buy extra ones of their choice. "

At Taibah University, the head of the Women’s college, Dr. Inass, is a physician who works at the hospital for 2 days each week and 3 days at the university. the Vice Dean of the Science faculty, Dr. Hanadi Zahid, has a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Manchester. Hanadi was married at age 18, but continued her education while raising three children. She told me that was not unusual among educated, married Saudi women.

Dammam University emphasizes engineering for men and biomedical engineering for women. My presentation on X-ray research for cancer treatment was advertised to various deans and departments by the Dean of Engineering,  Professor Abdulrahman Hariri. This university has more developed research programs and laboratories. The Dean discussed water research since he learned that OSU has an extensive water research program. The STEM ER program was seen as a further development. I was given the University trophy for making a positive contribution for the university. Research is difficult for the Physics Department in the women college where I gave separate presentations. There is limited access to male colleagues for joint research projects. The physics department chair (with a Ph.D. in molecular spectroscopy) had been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to approach US universities for a research collaboration since it is easy for her to get a Saudi grant to spend time in the US.

King Saud University is one of the oldest in the country and the recipient of a large research grant. It is active in many research areas. There are two domes for astronomy research, one devoted to solar study. During my 5-day visit, I met people from various science departments, men and women, and deans of the women college. The research group interested in r-matrix calculation that I do has one man, Prof. Nabil Bennessib from Tunisia, and two women, Dr. Norah Alonizan of Saudi Arabia who is also the Chair of Physics Department of the women’s college, and Dr, Rabia Qindel of Pakistan, This group has been working very productively. After Rabia Qindel completed her Ph.D. in physics she travelled to South America for a Post Doc and finally obtained a position at King Saud. She struggles in her profession with children and in a country where she cannot drive. Professor Laila Babsail, a Saudi Physics professor with a Ph.D. from Canada, has managed to carry on with a family and a hired male driver from India. She is a member of ISMWS and had been most helpful in introducing me to Princess Norah University. One MOHE official told me that allowing women to drive is under consideration and that the ban will be lifted

I spent one day at Princess Nora University. My visit was advertised and the Dean of faculty of science came to my talk. The laboratory tour showed an emphasis on a strong undergraduate program. There are about 800 physics majors. Research is being developed, and I have been asked to guide X-ray research in astronomy. MOHE invited delegates, whom it invited to IECHE, for the Desert Picnic one evening. We experienced a camel ride, and Saudi folk songs and participated in simple dances. I may note that there was no problem with the four males helping female delegates to camel ride similar to what they did for the male delegates. This occasion gave me the opportunity to promote the new STEM program and discuss other topics with representatives of universities in Algeria, Lebanon, France, and the US.

The US Embassy organized a reception at Quincy House for US representatives and Saudi education officials. I met several people both from the US and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. James Smith, the ambassador, presented information on the US university participation in IECHE.  He spoke of the continuing strong relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia which began with a meeting between King Abdulaziz and US President Franklin Roosevelt on board the US Navy cruiser Quincy in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945.

In addition to providing information on studying at OSU, each of our team did considerable networking with MOHE officials, deans or high ranking officials, professors at Saudi universities, and with OSU alumni in Saudi Arabia. The visit to Saudi Arabia also cleared up several misconceptions communicated to us before going to there. I was asked several times to hand over the delegation leadership to male delegate Robert Eckhart because being a female the Saudis would avoid me and might not cooperate or help us. This turned out to be wrong. I was treated very well, like any other male participant. This began with Dr. Salim Al-Malik, the General Director for International Affairs of MOHE, who responded to each of my emails. I also heard that I would be hit on the head if any trace of hair sticks out of the veil, conference helpers would not translate my English to Arabic whenever it would be necessary, we would need to treat any royal member who would stop by the booth with all possible help since they are used to servants doing things for them. We did not encounter any of these, rather were impressed by their generous hospitality.

Dr. Sultana N. Nahar is a research scientist in the Department of Astronomy at Ohio State University. She has published extensively on radiative and collisional atomic processes in astrophysical and laboratory plasmas, and also worked on dielectronic satellite lines, theoretical spectroscopy, and computational nanospectroscopy for biomedical applications. Sultana Nahar is the winner of the APS 2013 John Wheatley Award. Email:

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.