Government looking to encourage branch campuses

Saudi Arabia has witnessed a number of rapid social and economic changes in the last couple of months. These transformations have come after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled Vision 2030, an ambitious programme of development for the Kingdom.

This vision brings new challenges and opportunities to many sectors, including the education sector. Saudi Arabia is now open to the idea of foreign branch campuses on its soil, as reported by Al Eqtesadiah newspaper. The report says the government is in the final stages of preparing procedures and policies that will allow foreign universities to set up branch campuses in Saudi Arabia.

Dr Ayedh Al Otaibi, deputy governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), has stated that members of a special committee comprising SAGIA and the Education Ministry have been working together to lay out the government policies that would license international universities to open campuses in Saudi Arabia. This will mean that a Saudi student can earn a premier education from a foreign university without leaving the country.

Saudi Arabia is not the first country in the Gulf region to do so. The Gulf is home to two of the largest host countries of branch campuses: Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Most of their international branch campuses are American universities. For example, Qatar Education City hosts Northwestern University, Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M University, etc. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is home to nearly 40 international branch campuses.

These universities were not only welcomed but also formally invited and enticed to open an international campus, as in the case of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. All of these institutions bring US or Western-style higher education into the countries to compete with a traditional Eastern style of education. However, doing something similar in Saudi Arabia may create serious problems and challenges.


Unlike Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia is a big country and its student numbers cannot be compared to the numbers of Qatar and the UAE. It is unclear whether the Saudi government is going to tax these institutions. In other Gulf countries they are 100% exempt from tax.

In addition, is it going to subsidise the cost of construction or carry any other financial burden? Of course, this would have an impact on tuition fees. Tuition fees already cost around US$40,000 for an MBA at the private Al Yamamah University. The market is already competitive and the financial overheads should be clearly outlined in the procedures to avoid branch campus closures, as happened with George Mason University’s branch campus in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE, in 2009.

If the Saudi government wants to attract international branch campuses, it will need to bear some infrastructure cost or offer some financial incentives or support packages (such as tax exemptions).


International branch campuses are usually limited in the undergraduate programmes they can offer in host countries. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the emphasis should be on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and medical science programmes more than liberal arts.

Branch campuses should specialise in the skills the host country wants and what the job market demands. However, these programmes require labs and more advanced technical machinery in order to be an effective replica of the home institution, to a greater extent than liberal arts programmes.

In other words, the quality of these programmes should match local development agendas by matching unmet demand with academic rigour and a strong commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship. Accordingly, international branch campuses should define and outline what is most needed for the host country and ensure that their mission statement is in alignment with the Saudi Vision 2030 programme.

They should reflect the host country’s values, culture and ambitions rather than American or Western values.

Any quality failings might turn students against these programmes, so the challenge is to attract students to these programmes and to act as an incubator for innovation and a knowledge-based economy.

Academic freedom

Beyond academic programmes, a major challenge for international branch campuses is to convince home faculty to teach overseas. They might be reluctant to leave their advanced labs at home to come to a new facility and culture. However, attractive incentives might be offered by the host country for them to stay for an extended period of time.

Another challenge is academic freedom. Both parties will need to understand the difference between the two countries and cultures and work out how to reduce this difference. University administrators should work closely and seriously with Saudi authorities to ensure that academic freedom is guaranteed to some extent because it is unrealistic to expect the kind of academic freedom they find in their home institutions.

Duplicating the home institution environment should not be the goal: it should be about creating an academic environment where local demands can be discussed and met. Any tension that might arise because of cultural and social clashes might jeopardise the branch campus’ success.

There are clearly challenges to branching out in a culture where there will be differences in some academic and social values between host and branch campus countries. Overcoming these successfully may help to meet Vision 2030’s plan to create a highly skilled local and national workforce and would surely be an indication of a maturing academic system.

Ruwayshid Alruwaili is head of the English and linguistic department at Northern Borders University, Saudi Arabia.