Nearly two and a half years after Mohammed bin Salman’s Asia tour, the Saudi government has been developing a stronger partnership and advancing economic cooperation with America’s competitor, China. One of the clearest examples of the increasingly developing ties is in the educational sector where the state is investing heavily in Chinese language education. While the end goal may be to produce a new generation of Saudis who are proficient in Chinese and oriented towards China rather than the US and Europe, a closer look at the initiative reveals significant implementation challenges that may hinder the process.
In February 2019, MBS held a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which they discussed bilateral interests and cooperation in the technology sector. The Crown Prince also announced a commitment to include Mandarin Chinese language in the curriculum of Saudi public schools—a clear symbol of Saudi Arabia’s evolving foreign policy priorities. Official Saudi media quickly rallied around the decision; Al Arabiya was among the first to publish an article about Saudi children living in China and speaking Mandarin fluently.
Many Saudis, however, expressed concerns on Twitter, with some emphasizing existing flaws in the education system. Some pointed out perceived defects in the way Arabic is taught in schools. Others raised similar concerns about the English curriculum, arguing that it does not effectively prepare students to acquire adequate language skills. The essence of the critics’ argument is that existing shortcomings in the public school system should be addressed before another foreign language is introduced.
Despite these objections, in 2020, Ibtisam Alshehri, Spokesperson at the Ministry of Education, announced on Twitter that a handful of high schools would begin to teach Chinese as an elective. In December 2021, the number of high schools that teach the language skyrocketed to over 700 in total. At the university level, the president of King Saud University signed an agreement with the Confucius Institute in 2019 to establish a Chinese language department.
Although the Ministry of Education declared that learning Chinese is optional, some universities have made it compulsory for first-year students to learn the language. For example, at University of Jeddah, it is mandatory for freshmen to study Mandarin irrespective of their major. The dean of the university stressed, “anyone who wants to join the University of Jeddah must study the Chinese language skills course.” Additionally, as integration of Chinese as a foreign language expands, local teachers undergo a rigorous one-year training program to learn Mandarin from scratch and ultimately teach it in classrooms.
In a video that went viral on social media, a Saudi language instructor reads Chinese terms to a group of teachers in a small classroom in the city of Taif. The instructor uses a rote teaching methodology and asks the teachers to repeat each word after him. This methodology, along with the broader integration strategy it points to, provoked contentious debate on Twitter, and some mocked the video. According to Okaz, one of the primary goals of teaching Chinese to Saudi teachers is to relieve the Ministry of financial burdens. Intensively teaching local teachers the language—a questionable strategy—seems to be more affordable than importing Chinese instructors.
Given that Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn with its distinct tonal system, it is not enough simply to acquire basic language skills or to have prior teaching experience. According to Voxy, the volume of Chinese characters and the complexity of the writing system make learning the language onerous, which suggests that an understanding of specialized pedagogy is necessary.
The difficulty of learning Chinese was corroborated by Saudi students attending a university in northern Saudi Arabia. In a research study by Saudi professor Hammad Al Shammari, 80 percent of the 25 male and female student participants strongly agreed that Chinese is more challenging to learn than Arabic. In Arabic, for example, while one word can have multiple meanings depending on the context, in Chinese, the meaning of a word changes based on subtle changes in pronunciation. The study results also indicate that students lack motivation or interest to learn the language, which could make the learning process more tedious and demanding for them.
Additionally, a lack of familiarity or exposure prior to learning may catch learners and their initial expectations off guard. In an interview by Saudi 24 TV channel, Chairman of the Saudi-Chinese Business Council, Fahad Al Arjani, discussed his experience learning Chinese. He first made the point that, unlike English, people in the Middle East are not used to hearing Chinese in their surroundings. He described the first months as a “sound shock” and emphasized that “whoever is determined to learn the language will continue. Otherwise, one will not be able to.”
Aside from linguistic difficulties, intercultural communication is an essential part of the learning process. Teaching indigenous beliefs and practices cannot be separated from language instruction. In China, for example, certain items are associated with misfortune. While in the Arab Gulf region, watches are typical gifts given to friends and family members, giving a watch or clock as a gift is frowned upon in Chinese culture; time is viewed as a metaphor for death. Students must learn such beliefs, especially since gift-giving is common in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states. The majority of local teachers who learn Chinese are unlikely to develop cultural competency in a short period of time.
Furthermore, teaching Chinese in a conservative culture may require the exclusion of certain cultural practices. Ling Mei, a former graduate student at NYU in Shanghai, reflected on her time teaching Chinese in Saudi Arabia and described teaching Chinese culture in the kingdom as a major challenge. For example, she had to consider religious sensitivities when deciding which cultural practices to include in the curriculum.
Introducing Chinese as a foreign language in Saudi schools and universities is truly ambitious. However, the lack of a comprehensive understanding of the benefits and risks—which is largely a result of hasty implementation—strains the learning process and impedes desired outcomes. Overall, to fulfill the state’s geopolitical objective of preparing Chinese-speaking Saudi nationals and shifting their interest to the east, policymakers should work to develop effective motivational strategies to spark genuine interest in learning Chinese as a foreign language and, just as importantly, to engage them with Chinese culture.
Hind Al Ansari is a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. Her work focuses on social and educational reform in the Arab and Muslim world.