Saudi students are returning to the United States after tensions in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, but other Western countries remain an easier alternative for many, Saudis and foreign diplomats said.
Saudi Arabia hopes to send 10,000 students to U.S. universities this year as part of a scholarship scheme to return cultural links to their levels before 9/11, when 19 young Arabs, including 15 Saudis, killed 3,000 people with hijacked planes.
“The number of Saudi students in the States is currently about 14,000. This is up significantly from early post-9/11 figures,” a U.S. embassy official said on Sunday.
But visa procedures remain tough for Saudis hoping to study in the United States, and it can take 12 weeks just to get an interview. Saudi media have frequently reported alleged maltreatment, including from U.S. government bodies.
Britain, Canada and other English-speaking countries have taken advantage of the problems to attract Saudis their way.
“Ninety-five percent of Saudis who get visas got them the same day ... so come on over to Britain to enjoy the best education in the world,” British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles said at the opening of a British university fair on Saturday.
Britain’s intake of full-time students is set to hit 6,000 in 2007, from only around 2,000 in 2001. Canada’s intake has also risen steadily to 6,000, many of them studying medicine.
“Definitely America is more difficult, that’s what I feel. The visa takes longer and requires personal interviews,” said Fares al-Fureijy, who wants to study electrical engineering.
Nawaf al-Deeb, who wants to study business management, agreed. “I prefer Britain because the visa is really easy to get,” the 17-year-old said. “And it’s closer.”
A Western diplomat said the increasing educational exchange was a sign that the post 9/11 tension in Saudi relations with Western countries, including the United States, was easing.
“If numbers had continued to drop, that would have handed al Qaeda another victory by creating barriers,” he said.