This two-part post is intended to draw together the information available online about Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme.
Compiling the post has not been an easy task.
The Mawhiba website is oddly constructed. There are actually two parallel sites – one for Mawhiba and one for the Foundation that preceded and created it – though the latter frequently tips one back into the former. Several of the most significant pages on the Mawhiba side are still ‘under construction’.
The online architecture reflects the puzzling real-life relationship between the organisation overseeing Mawhiba (its full name is the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity) and Mawhiba itself.
Sometimes they are treated as quite distinct; sometimes as two sides of the same coin. Just occasionally the Foundation is also called Mawhiba. This can make it hard to interpret parts of the online narrative, particularly when they are generated by third parties whose relationship with either entity is unclear.
This third party material is also rather fragmented. Much of it has to be dredged up through exhaustive keyword searches. Significant chunks are in Arabic. While online translation tools struggle purposefully with the websites, they are not nearly so reliable when invited to tackle the PDFs that typically carry the important factual detail.
So preparing this material has required more detective work than usual. It has felt like piecing together a jigsaw with several missing pieces. I have drawn on all the material I could find at May 2011. If further documentation is published, or if readers have access to additional information that they can make publicly available, I cordially invite them to add it to the record in whatever way they prefer.
This is all rather surprising given the extensive involvement of international contractors in the design and delivery of Mawhiba, most of them working in English so presumably needing to have their work translated into Arabic.
It also shows up the limited depth and penetration of Mawhiba’s communications and awareness-raising strand, at least as far as the international audience is concerned.
The dearth of reliable information means that it is all too easy to underestimate or, conversely, to over-estimate the significance of what has been called:
‘the most comprehensive educational approach in the world to nurturing high performance and creativity’ (Room at the Top, page 48).
The real purpose of this post is to help us get Mawhiba properly into perspective.
Saudi Arabia and its Education System
We should begin with a short context-setting preface, to help those unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia and its education system to get their bearings.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the largest country in the Arabian peninsula and the 14th largest by area in the world. It covers a land mass similar in size to Western Europe, although over 95% is either desert or semi-desert.
The national population is about 26 million, but over 20% of them do not have Saudi nationality, including a huge influx of visiting workers. The capital city, Riyadh, has a population of 4.7 million. Other large cities such as Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Dammam have populations upward of 1 million apiece.
KSA is governed as a hereditary monarchy: since 2005 the King and Prime Minister has been Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al Saud. (The Foundation that oversees Mawhiba was established by the King before he ascended the throne and he retained the role subsequently).
The country itself is named after the ruling family, which first assumed power in the 18th Century, although the Kingdom was founded as recently as 1932.
The education system comprises:
- Kindergarten (ages 3-5) – non-compulsory and attended by about 11% of the relevant population;
- Primary (ages 6-11 covering Grades 1-6). Children take the General Elementary School Certificate at the end of Grade 6;
- Intermediate (ages 12-14 covering Grades 7-9). Pupils take the Intermediate School Certificate at the end of Grade 9; and
- Secondary (ages 15-18 covering Grades 10-12). Students may attend a general, a religious or a technical secondary school. Those in general schools choose in their second year between three tracks: administration and social science, natural science, and shariah and Arabic studies. Technical schools may focus on industrial, commercial or agricultural studies.
Schools are segregated by gender but males and females follow the same curriculum and take the same examinations.
University students typically take a bachelor’s degree after four years of study. A master’s degree requires two further years and a doctorate three years more. Technical colleges and institutes offer courses leading to certificates and diplomas of up to three years’ duration.
The higher education sector has recently undergone rapid expansion and includes 24 public universities, 8 private universities and 45 technological colleges and technical institutes. There are 4,885 secondary schools, 7,826 intermediate schools and 13,626 primary schools. These serve some 450,000 teachers and around 4.6 million pupils.
(These figures are almost certainly already out of date but they serve as reasonable indicators of the relative size of the system.)
This US Embassy briefing provides additional accessible background material on education in Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom is engaged in a major and many-stranded education reform process, also instigated by the King. This is called Tatweer (meaning ‘Development’) and has its own website in English.
This recent press report describes vividly some of the shortcomings of the Saudi education system that Tatweer is designed to address, its limited impact to date and the huge obstacles that it needs to overcome. It suggests that some of these reforms will take a decade or even a generation to come to fruition, and there is real scepticism over the prospects of success.
The other Western news articles here and here and the Saudi take here provide more background on the purpose and scope of Tatweer. There is also a detailed delivery plan available online, dating from 2009.
National Development Plans
Since 1970, the Saudi Government has set out in a series of detailed five-year plans how it expects to reform and improve every aspect of national performance.
The most recent plans, available in English on the website of the Ministry of Economy and Planning, show how thoroughly the Kingdom has dedicated itself to the development path of a knowledge-based economy (KBE). They also position the national investment in gifted education within that broader context.
The current Plan, the Ninth, covers 2009-2013. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the country’s development as a KBE:
‘A knowledge-based economy is defined as “an economy that is capable of knowledge production, dissemination and use; where knowledge is a key factor in growth, wealth creation and employment, and where human capital is the driver of creativity, innovation and generation of new ideas, with reliance on information and communication technology (ICT) as an enabler”. Moreover, there is a positive correlation and mutual interaction between the “knowledge society” and the “knowledge–based economy”. In addition, “knowledge” has become a critical requirement for enhancing competitiveness of countries in the twenty first century.
Theory, experience and present international practices affirm that contemporary global drivers of economic growth are different than in the past. More than ever before in human history, the economy is now dependent on the knowledge factor for growth. To respond positively to these developments and ensure enhancement of competitive capacities of the national economy, it is essential for economic policies to pay attention to knowledge….
The Eighth Development Plan focussed on fundamental developments that laid the basis for heading towards a knowledge-based economy. These included starting implementation of the first five-year plan of the Science and Technology National Policy; adopting the National ICT Plan, the National Industrial Strategy, and the Strategy and Plan for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation; establishing the Knowledge City in Medina, and the technical zone of the Saudi Organization for Industrial Estates and Technology Zones in Dammam; proceeding with preparation of a new strategy for higher education (AFAQ); and advancing privatization.
The Ninth Development Plan adopts the drive towards a knowledge-based economy through focussing on education, which disseminates knowledge, paving the way for knowledge transfer and accumulation and thereafter knowledge generation, and utilisation of knowledge in various economic and social sectors, particularly in production and service activities. Through these endeavours, the Plan seeks to enhance the comparative advantages of the economy, add to it new competitive advantages, diversify it, and increase its productivity and competitiveness, as well as create appropriate employment opportunities for citizens.’
‘A knowledge-based economy is based on utilisation of the outputs of the knowledge system to create new products and services through innovation. Although, according to the Global Innovation Index, innovation in the Kingdom is still a significant challenge, a springboard for development of innovation has been put in place. For example, national industries have developed significantly over the past three decades, and now have strong bases of knowledge upon which to build towards the new economy, particularly with the adoption of the National Industrial Strategy, and its implementation mechanism that espouses knowledge-based economy, and the Strategy for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation.’
The remainder of the Chapter identifies a series of challenges that need to be overcome, one of which is:
‘Giftedness, creativity and innovation: Growing interest in developing talent, creativity and innovation has been manifested in the adoption of a National Strategy for Fostering Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation, the establishment of the King Abdul-Aziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, and the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Nonetheless, more efforts are needed to enhance the thrust of the drive towards a knowledge-based economy, and achieve excellence in universities and higher-education institutes, as well as of scientists, technologists and innovators.’
The plan includes two targets specifically relating to gifted education:
‘Increasing the number of (male and female) students who benefit from “giftedness and creativity” initiatives, to reach around 14 thousand annually by the end of the Plan.’
and, in the chapter on education:
‘Establishing a research unit for the gifted and qualifying existing centres to enable them to design, develop and implement special programmes for the gifted’.
There is also a descriptive piece on Mawhiba in Chapter 21, on Science, Technology and Innovation.
A Brief and Approximate History of Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia
One source suggests that there have been three distinct stages in the history of Saudi gifted education:
- development of the National Project for Identifying and Servicing the Gifted;
- implementation of that National Project; and
- establishing the King Abdul Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity.
Elsewhere, we learn that the ‘General Document of Educational Policy’, produced in 1970, included the following provision:
‘It is very important to discover and identify the gifted learners among all Saudi young children and youth, nurture them by all means to unveil their potentials, and pay extra attention and efforts to provide them with special programs and appropriate opportunities that can be integrated easily into the Country’s Public Educational System.’ (Rule 57)
This led to the introduction of academic competitions and exhibitions, annual awards and scholarships and small-scale research.
More concerted efforts were made from 1991 when researchers from King Saud University and officials from the Ministry of Education and the General Presidency for Girls’ Education secured funding from the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology for a five-year programme to develop identification tests and enrichment activities in maths and science.
During this period a Bachelor of Education Degree in Gifted Education was also established in the Faculty of Education at King Saud University.
The Ministry of Education subsequently commissioned members of the same team to establish a ‘Gifted Identification and Fostering Programme’ in selected schools in some of Saudi Arabia’s major cities. The male students’ programme started in 1997 and the female students’ programme a year later.
These programmes included teacher training, the administration of identification tests, the introduction and evaluation of enrichment activities, and efforts to raise parental and public awareness.
The Ministry established its own directorate for male gifted education in 1999/2000 and, two years later, a parallel directorate for female students. The director of the former is accountable to the Minister of Education (who is also deputy head of the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation).
The directorate for male gifted education includes separate units responsible for Nurturing and Enrichment Programmes, Planning and Training and Discovering and Identification. It brokers a series of enrichment activities and ‘gifted Nurturing Centers’. The female equivalent presumably has a similar structure.
The Origins of the Foundation
To support these efforts, the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity was founded in 1999, an independent non-profit organisation based in Riyadh and dedicated to identifying and supporting young gifted and talented Saudis. The King himself (then the Crown Prince) assumed the Presidency.
The Foundation was funded by King Fahad, the Crown Prince and other princes and businessmen. One source says that the total value of the Foundation is £50 million and that it also receives from the Government an annual running costs budget of about £2.5 million.
This record, reporting the first meeting of the Foundation, says that the King, the Crown Prince and Prince Sultan together donated 69 million Saudi Riyals (about £11.4m), 30 million was donated by the King, plus an annual one million Riyal contribution to ‘the King Abdul Aziz Organisation for the Care of Gifted Students’. The Crown Prince gave 29 million plus an annual grant of 500,000 Riyals and Prince Sultan a further 10 million Riyals.
Its original goals were to:
- facilitate and foster giftedness, invention and creativity;
- create professional pathways in medicine, environmental science, communication, education, the arts, telecommunication, engineering sciences and technology;
- support and provide enrichment activities;
- educate the population (parents, teachers and employers) about methods of nurturing gifts and talents; and
- assist educational and professional institutions across the Kingdom to develop G&T education programmes.
Today the Foundation describes its mission thus:
‘To support the establishment and development of a creative environment and society so the talented and gifted individuals can harness and exploit their talents to serve the nation.’
And it identifies three main strategic goals: to nurture giftedness and creativity in both males and females; to support national abilities in generating innovative ideas; and to foster young, gifted and creative leaders in the field of science and technology.
The Mawhiba Strategic Plan
Mawhiba, which literally means ‘gift’, ‘talent’ or ‘favour’ (and can be used as a name for either a boy or a girl) is essentially the Foundation’s 15-year strategic plan, launched in 2008 but prepared the previous year following an extensive consultancy by McKinsey and Company.
One used to be able to find online a Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation which appears to summarise the McKinsey work for the Foundation (but it seems to have been taken down since I first published this post).
The underpinning aspiration for the Project is expressed in terms of developing the infrastructure to support giftedness, creativity and innovation throughout the human life cycle. This initial ‘lifelong learning’ focus is almost immediately scaled back to focus on schooling, higher education and early working life.
The McKinsey team undertook extensive international benchmarking, a literature review and a domestic situation analysis. The benchmarking activity included a review of practice in 20 countries and 90 organisations as well as in-depth analysis of over 20 unnamed institutions in Finland, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK.
The situational analysis identified four key developments in the Kingdom:
- increasing emphasis on knowledge-based industries, so increasing the demand for innovation;
- a growing youth population leading to higher levels of youth unemployment;
- (rather curiously) the admission of the USA to the World Trade Organisation in January 2005, leading to increased competition; and
- more general international competition for highly-skilled workers, leading to a domestic shortage in KSA.
The presentation goes on to list several initiatives already introduced as a response to this scenario, explaining that Mawhiba will complement these by feeding the pipeline that supplies young gifted and talented leaders.
The long term vision, set 15 years ahead in 2022 is:
‘To be a creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly-educated and well-trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’
This vision is to be realised through three consecutive five-year plans, the first completed in 2012-13 (so broadly aligned with the Kingdom’s national 5-year plans).
During the initial 5-year phase, five priority initiatives are recommended:
- Mawhiba school partnerships covering both the primary and secondary sectors;
- Mawhiba enrichment programmes, involving summer schools and after-school activity for the primary and secondary sectors, plus competitions and awards that also extend into the HE sector;
- Mawhiba Young Leaders and Scholarship Programme, designed for those in tertiary/higher education and the initial stages of employment;
- Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative for those in the early stages of emplyment; and
- an overarching awareness and communications initiative spanning the full age range apart from pre-school provision.
There is also reference to a research and policy unit that will offer cross-cutting support.
There is no explanation as to why none of the five initiatives address the pre-school phase: this is presumably set aside until the second five-year plan. A note confirms that there is no automatic transition between the four student-focused elements, each of which has separate selection criteria.
The presentation includes positive comments from several international experts consulted on the draft plan, but they counsel staged implementation, recommending the Saudis to draw initially on international expertise but to concentrate on building domestic capacity in the medium to long term.
The Mawhiba Brochure (2007 Edition)
One can trace the influence of this work on a Brochure subtitled ‘Special Issue for King Abdullah University for Science and Technology Inauguration 21 October 2007’.
It confirms that a ‘Strategy and Action Plan for Fostering Giftedness and Creativity’ has been developed by the Foundation in collaboration with McKinsey which prioritises the development of science, technology and leadership, but also personal and social skills.
It refers to five main components, but these are different to those described in the McKinsey publication. Instead we have reference to the Foundation’s existing portfolio of activities:
Programmes and services:
- Mawhiba Summer Programmes – enrichment events of four weeks’ duration based in domestic and international universities. The summer schools will develop students’ cognitive abilities as well as personal, social and emotional skills. The initial series comprised 16 events catering for 550 students.
- The ‘Imagine Service’ which aims to develop innovation in middle and high school students by encouraging them to develop their ideas with online feedback and support from experts in the relevant fields.
- The ‘Shawer Service’ (I’m unclear why it is called this) which provides advice and counselling for gifted students, their parents and educators through an online service, a telephone helpline and face-to-face counselling.
Conferences and exhibitions: in 2006 the Foundation organised the ‘Scientific Regional Conference for Giftedness’ an international event to raise awareness of gifted education in the Kingdom and in the wider Arab world. In March 2008 it organised with Aramco the first Saudi Innovation Exhibition.
Competitions and awards. There is an annual award for scientific creativity designed for male and female innovators up to the age of 25 and two competitions in robotics.
The National Portal for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation for young people, their parents, teachers and educators. This is described as ‘an electronic oasis’ and is not expected to be in place until March 2008.
Finally there is a Customer Service Centre providing support for all those engaged in delivering the services above.
The Mawhiba Brochure (2009 Edition)
By 2009, the Brochure has undergone substantive revision, but there are still two competing sets of priorities. The five identified by McKinsey are stated very briefly but the second half of the Brochure is an updated version of the 2007 edition, once again outlining the existing Foundation work programme.
This perhaps suggests that the integration of the McKinsey plan into the existing work of the Foundation took some considerable time and no little effort to bring about.
In this version, the Foundation’s three fundamental objectives are essentially: improving and expanding the education offer for gifted learners; promoting society’s awareness of gifted education and creativity; and supporting the Kingdom’s sustainable development.
The document goes on to state several guiding principles that are said to emerge from these objectives:
- (as per McKinsey) focusing on all phases of the education system and beyond into employment;
- ‘nourishing the ambition of reaching a shortlist which includes the best 3% of all Saudi students’;
- building and developing creativity, leadership, critical thinking and innovation and developing advanced skills maths, science and IT;
- working in collaboration with any organisation or institution (public or private) that supports the vision;
- the importance of admitting candidates from different backgrounds and from all sectors and categories of Saudi society; and
- the need to raise awareness of Foundation programmes as well as wider issues relating to giftedness and creativity
There is still material about programmes and services, conferences and exhibitions, competitions and awards. The online portal has become the ‘National Electronic Gate for Giftedness and Creativity’
‘ It aims to provide the users with quality interactive services that enable them to communicate through educational games, a multi-media library, special forums, and chat groups’.
The fifth priority is changed to ‘education and enlightenment’ but there is no text to describe what it entails. Maybe this is McKinsey’s awareness-raising and communication strand.
The Brochure also explains that, in collaboration with the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) the Foundation has established a parallel unified Arab strategy for giftedness with a vision for 2025. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed and the strategy approved at a Tunisia conference in December 2008.
- Approving national strategies for the sponsorship of giftedness and creativity;
- Assigning national agencies and institutions to undertake them;
- Improving existing opportunities for educating gifted people and promoting society’s awareness of the importance of giftedness and creativity; and
- contributing to targeted sustainable development in the Arab countries
I have found no subsequent update on this parallel pan-Arab strategy, which may or may not be proceeding.