ABU Dhabi: What do US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s closest adviser, Qatar’s princesses and I have in common? One would think, almost nothing. But as young girls, we were all students at Saudi Arabia’s Manarat schools.
A co-educational experiment launched in the 1980s, these schools truly were a beacon — the English translation of manarat — for so many students. Too many schools in Saudi Arabia were just cash cows set up by expatriates, churning out sub-standard diplomas and graduates with elitist attitudes. On the other hand, there were the many Wahhabi-oriented madrasahs, or religious schools, designed to indoctrinate children without teaching them critical thinking.
The adventure began when one of a royal circle of reformers, Prince Mohammed Al Faisal Al-Saud, launched Manarat as part of a larger vision. He drafted my parents to shape its strategic direction and Dr. Tawfiq Al-Shawi, an Egyptian legal authority on democracy, championed the project among Saudi policy makers.
One of the first things my mother did was to recognize the talents of a school teacher, who grew to become one of our closest family friends. Aisha Abdullah is a tall, African American convert to Islam with a heavy southern drawl. Her stoicism and imposing calm got her appointed as headmistress in a Manarat school in Jeddah, where she ran a tight ship.
Dilettantes, who were far too used to throwing their connections around crying wasta — an Arabic term for the use of powerful client networks and connections — threatened her career and played the race card like it was going out of fashion. But she would have none of it. She wasn’t chosen for her political savvy or ability to pander to a brash set of royals. But Mrs. Aisha, as many still refer to her even after all these years, could and did face down and discipline scores of spoilt children.
Manarat sought to demolish ideas of wealth, class, race and nationality in an egalitarian project which mixed expatriates from Africa, Asia and Europe with Saudi nationals, with classes in both English and Arabic. Schools across Saudi Arabia, from Al Khobar to Jeddah, were built from the ground up with white-washed walls and cool marble floors. The daughters of laborers were taught alongside royals irrespective of race, class and wealth.
No expense was spared to create an educational institution that aimed to foster free-thinking and innovation. Teachers were flown in from around the world and offered high, tax-free salaries. New textbooks arrived each year for every student, and rafts of scholarships subsidized education for families who couldn’t afford school fees. It was never about the schools making money.
Instead, Manarat’s education was meant to overcome the odds in a region where poor literacy rates held the entire society back. The results spoke for themselves. The school’s students achieved the highest grades, according to international British standards, in the entire Middle East within the first few years of their establishment.
From families with the lowest levels of literacy, graduates left Saudi Arabia to excel in their fields, as Ivy League Ph.D. students, diplomats and policy makers. Clinton’s advisor, Huma Abedin, is one example of their many successful graduates.
Manarat schools fell into decline primarily because a policy of “Saudiasation” was implemented, ensuring Saudi nationals and not expatriates occupied key managerial positions. The policy of promoting Saudis made sense up to a point. But then later there was no one to take over the helm of Manarat. Mrs. Aisha’s replacement could not adequately fill her shoes. Sadly, Manarat, once such a success, is now just another faltering school system.
Though today it has lost much of its exceptional quality because of many reasons, a reflection on its origins and intentions has lessons for educational reform across the Gulf region. Manarat worked for years because of equality of opportunity within the student body, which is highly needed in an often segregated, regimented region, a few remarkable teachers and other committed thinkers who recognized the importance of education and would set aside their time, such as Omar Abdullah Nasseef, who now is President of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Even he would sit in on teacher interviews in the leather-bound chairs of the Saudi Cultural Attaché’s offices.
What can Manarat’s original success teach us? As we look at schools in the Gulf, where students often learn by rote, reform can seem misdirected. Few focus on the potential that diversity and high expectations can bring. I often hear that young citizens of the Gulf are impossible to inspire and motivate. But I disagree. Manarat’s alumni were brought up to know otherwise.
If Saudi Arabia could offer such an amazing education decades ago, then the Gulf should not wait. As Manarat’s alumni know, this region — now, not in some bygone era of Arab glory — can produce its own scholars.
Habiba Hamid is a leader writer at The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi. This modified article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The original text can be found at www.thenational.ae.