Although ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and People's Republic of China started relatively late, today, the relationship between the two countries has developed beyond diplomatic, economic or political affairs.
Their ties have expanded further to different fields including culture and education. The bonds between Riyadh and Beijing in the fields of education and technology have developed rapidly and positively over the past few years.
Despite the fact that little has been documented on the number of students in both countries, it is believed that the number of students going to study overseas from Saudi Arabia to China, or vice versa, has been increasing recently. According to a report published in 2011, there were approximately 1,100 Saudi students enrolled in different universities in several cities across China, and the number is expected to increase this year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is also encouraging their students to study at Saudi universities. It was reported that there are 270 Chinese students enrolled in a number of Suudi universities.
It has been also recently reported that there are approximately 200 Chinese students and teachers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and it is estimated that the largest single foreign representation in KAUST are Chinese nationals.
Beijing's interest in strengthening its educational relationship with the kingdom over the past few years can also be seen by the participation of several Chinese institutions in the International Education and Conference on Higher Education that is held in Riyadh annually. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia also often participates in an exhibition on education in China to provide prospective students from China with appropriate information regarding opportunities to study in the kingdom. Moreover, the alliance between Beijing and Riyadh has featured numerous exchanges involving teachers and students. Over the years, a number of students and teachers from Saudi Arabia visited China, and vice-versa, to exchange knowledge and know-how.
In order to fortify their relationships, a number of agreements and treaties pertaining to education and research have been signed by the governments of China and Saudi Arabia. In 2011, a Saudi delegation from more than 20 higher institutes, led by the education minister, visited the Chinese capital. During the visit, these universities signed 10 agreements with different Chinese institutions in the fields of higher education.
Soon after this visit, Chinese delegations, representing several universities also paid a visit to the kingdom.
In his visit in the following year, Zhang Ping, the chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission of China, signed an agreement between Beijing University and King Abdulaziz Public Library (KAPL). This agreement will expand the cooperation between the two institutions as well as to allow KAPL to establish its branch in China. Saudi Arabia's former Ambassador to China Yahya al Zaid said, "we have signed more than 30 agreements concerning Saudi and Chinese universities," with the most recent one during the recent visit of the kingdom's Defense Minister and Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz al Saud early this month.
What is particularly interesting is that the Saudis have reportedly signed an agreement with their Chinese counterparts on the development and the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.
In addition, each country also encourages students to study in one another's' country by offering academic scholarships. It has been reported that many Saudi students received academic scholarships granted by Chinese companies operating in the kingdom. These students are sent abroad to China to receive technical training not available to them in Saudi Arabia. Also the Chinese government is offering scholarships to professionals who wish to pursue further education.
With full backing from the government in Beijing, the King Abdullah Scholarship program also highlights China as one of the five destination countries in Asia for its prospective students. Both Riyadh and Beijing are assisting the development of education in each other's country in terms of construction and development.
In 2009, a deal was made between the Saudi Ministry of Education and the China Railway Construction Company (CRCC) to build nearly 200 public schools across the kingdom. The Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) has also reportedly signed an agreement to provide a loan of $25 million to help a school project in Tianshui, a city in Gansu province. This agreement was made in 2008 and was used to build laboratories, classrooms, libraries, as well as student hostels. While fostering cooperation is not a simple process, through the use of scholarships, exchanges, exhibitions, and aids, the bonds between Beijing and Riyadh have expanded to spheres far beyond that of only education.
China's rapidly increasing energy needs, combined with the economic decline in the United States and Europe, may lead China and Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries in the Gulf to enter a new level of engagement in different aspects. It is expected that both countries will intensify their relationship, exchanges and cooperation in the field of education for many years to come.
* Research Assistant at Qatar University