In Saudi Arabia, the children of Saudi mothers and foreign fathers have long faced difficulties getting an education and have been charged extra fees, part of larger problem they have accessing government-supported services, including health care. The children of Saudi men, even if they were born abroad and have been living abroad, are automatically fully Saudi and receive all benefits.
In addition, the children of expatriates can face great difficulty getting an education, especially those who are from poor families. In 2013, the Saudi minister of labor said 7.5 million expatriates are legally working in the kingdom, making up almost 25 percent of the total population.
The difficulties that “half-Saudis” and expatriates can face occur at all levels— from primary school to medical school.
One small legal victory this year may eventually point the way for better access for all.
In February, the Saudi Court of Appeals confirmed an earlier verdict forcing King Abdulaziz University to pay the same for its Saudi and half-Saudi medical students in their internship year. Previously, the university used to pay a Saudi intern 9,200 riyals (around $2,450) per month while awarding students who have a Saudi mother about 3000 riyals ($800).
Fouad Sindi, a Saudi student was working toward a law degree at Georgetown University in the United States, became a legal advisor to half-Saudi students who were trying to win equal pay. He felt Saudi law was clear on the matter. “Royal decree number 406,” he said, “provided equality between Saudis and half-Saudis in health, education and employment.”
In the past, the problem was that students who didn’t like getting lower pay had difficulty pressing their case because they were busy studying. Even officials who were sympathetic to their cause had difficulty changing the policy. “Every time they complained,” Sindi said, “the university would refer the students to different bodies within the university, the case was lost in the bureaucracy.”
Sindi advised a group of activist students to take legal action. That, he believed, would force the university “to be presented by one body, one reply and to have a unified official respond to such demands.”
In late 2012, the students filed a complaint within the university, a prerequisite under Saudi law before going to court. In June of 2013, they submitted a second complaint to the Ministry of Higher Education. Their complaints achieved no results so they took them to the Administrative Court, the judicial institution that has jurisdiction over government universities.
At this point, Sindi believes, the university was forced to look thoroughly into this case. The court ruled in the students’ favor in 2014. The university appealed but a second court upheld the verdict. “Half-Saudi” students won.
The ruling only covers the one university, but Sindi has subsequently been flooded with similar cases, many of which he thinks could be won in court.
The general language of the royal decree makes it subject to many interpretations, giving different governmental bodies a sizable margin to maneuver around it. The huge scholarship program that gives thousands of Saudi students generous scholarships to study abroad, Sindi said, “excludes half-Saudis, and this could be interpreted as a violation of the royal decree. The same applies to some post-education services, such as licensing and employment, so in general there are many ambiguities.”
But why is the language of the royal decree so broad? Some may look at it as a way to let discrimination continue. Sindi says the decree can also be seen as being meant to be inclusive of all rights.
In any case, discrimination clearly continues in primary schools.
About ten years ago, a Pakistani expatriate who, along with his family, had lived his entire life in Saudi Arabia, went to register his child at a nearby school. Due to his low income, he tried to avoid long commutes that cost him money and time he could spend at work.
The school staff surprised him by asking for 500 riyals (roughly $130) for a chair and computer for his child. He believes that this was requested from non-Saudi fathers only.
The years passed and he generally didn’t feel discriminated against after this incident until the 2009 Jeddah floods, which devastated his neighborhood and many of its schools. His school notified him that his child would be relocated far from their house. He objected and spoke to a school official, who hinted to him that some students would get priority over others. “I know many non-Saudis in my area who were forced to relocate their children’s schools after the floods,” he said.
A Yemeni woman living in a poor neighborhood in Jeddah knew that her own and her husband’s residency had expired, but they didn’t have enough money for renewal fees. Her daughter is enrolled in grade eight at a public school. “The administration sent me a note asking me to visit them, so I did,” she said. “They told me that you have to renew the residency or your daughter won’t be able to continue with us.” She explained to them that it would take her up to two months to secure the money. But she was told she only had two weeks.
The young girl kept attending the school until final exams, when she was removed from her chair to talk to the administration, who warned her that her parents must present renewed residency papers or else the school would prevent her from receiving her certificate for the year. She told her mother, “When they do this I get scared and forget the information that I studied yesterday.”
After the exams and with the help of donors, the residency was renewed and presented to the school, which then released the papers certifying the daughter’s successful completion of grade eight.
Is it legal under Saudi law to punish children for things their parents did or didn’t do? Nobody seems to know. In fact, this Yemeni lady noted that the schools where her sons go are far more flexible with expired residencies than girls schools, indicating a lack of a unified system.
The Saudi National Society for Human Rights, the only officially recognized human rights group in the country that doesn’t operate under the government, has detailed similar patterns in its 2008 report titled “Abolish Sponsorship Laws.” One example was the widespread practice of withholding the passport of foreign workers by their employer, which is a violation of Saudi laws. But the practice, as the organization noted, is so widespread and accepted that many don’t even know that it violates the Saudi law.
There is a web of complicated issues for non-citizens and half-citizens in Saudi Arabia, and access to education is just one of them. Even when the law is on their side, many expats still feel vulnerable, thinking that taking a government institution to court may jeopardize their livelihood in the kingdom.