Foreign AffairsWritten Evidence from The British Council

1. The British Council in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

1.1 The British Council creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide. We are on the ground in six continents and over 100 countries bringing international opportunity to life, every day. Each year we work with millions of people, connecting them with the UK, sharing our cultures and the UK’s most attractive assets: English, the Arts, Education and our ways of living and organising society. We have over 75 years experience of doing this.

1.2 The British Council has a strong presence in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We have been active in both countries since the 1950s. Today we have offices and teaching centres in Riyadh, Jeddah, Al-Khobar and Manama. We have well established networks in both countries and are recognised as a trusted partner by both Governments and by civil society.

1.3 We work primarily in English and education though increasingly also through social programmes and the arts. Our cultural relations work, especially the exchange of knowledge and ideas and the opening up of access to education and English, plays an essential role in the UK’s bilateral relationships with both countries.

2. Trust Research

2.1 Recent research undertaken by the British Council and IpsosMori demonstrated a strong link between the building of trust in the people of the UK and an increased willingness of people around the world to do business with the UK. In all ten countries we surveyed, those people who trusted the UK more were also much more likely to want to do business with the UK. Saudi Arabia was one of the countries included in the study and this trend was repeated with a +19% point increase.

2.2 The research also found that people who had engaged in cultural relations activity with the UK—whether it was by learning English, study and education programmes or connecting through the Arts—trusted people from the UK much more than those who had not. The power of English, education and culture held true in all ten countries researched, with a rise of +14% points in Saudi Arabia which turned a net negative level of trust of -12% to a positive score of +2%, ie from 38 in 100 people trusting the UK the figure rose to 52 in 100.

3. Our Work

Education and English

3.1 The English language and investment in higher education and vocational skills are viewed as crucial to economic success and social stability in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We are well placed to provide assistance to the Governments and peoples of the two countries to support economic diversification through English, skills training and support for the expansion of higher education.

3.2 The education sector in Saudi Arabia is undergoing a dramatic expansion—the state is investing 26% of non-military GDP on education and training. The number of state sector universities has trebled in less than a decade and the Government is pursuing ambitious plans to build 250 vocational and technical colleges and thousands of schools as well as aiming to recruit and train thousands of new teachers and lecturers. This massive investment is a decisive response to the demographic challenge faced by a country where 60% of the population is under 30 and 25% are of school age. The Government recognises that the demands of a growing, increasingly diverse economy require new skills and that Saudi Arabian nationals’ participation in the private sector needs to grow from the current 10%.

3.3 The Government understands that the country will depend increasingly on the knowledge economy to provide sustainable growth, with investment in English, ICT and work skills recognised as essential to future prosperity. It is providing scholarships for 70,000 young people in the period to 2015. School leavers are required to reach minimum standards of English prior to attending university with many undertaking a year’s English language training between their secondary and tertiary education. Saudi Arabia is now the 7th largest source of non-EU overseas students with 20,000 Saudis attending UK institutions of which 10,500 are at university—providing a critical income stream to our universities and language schools worth c £700m per annum. In January 2010 Saudi Arabia was also the largest source of overseas students in English language schools in the UK.

3.4 The scale of Saudi Arabia’s education revolution has provided a host of opportunities for the British Council to engage with both the Government and people of the country. The UK’s expertise in education and English language teaching is highly valued and the British Council is a respected partner and provider of services with high visibility and brand recognition. We have supported UK academics and agencies to train 2,500 Saudi university staff in quality assurance, strategic planning and management. We have brought 400 diploma holders—a quarter of who are women—to study in the UK at fifteen universities. They will complete a first degree, and take the professional skills and experiences of UK life they gain back to Saudi Arabia where they will work as trainers in the new colleges and institutes the Government in building. Across our teaching centres we are providing English classes for 15,000 students—90% of whom are Saudi nationals and 40% female. Year on year growth in demand for examinations is running at 20%—we are currently delivering c80,000 examinations to 25,000 candidates. We are also working with the Ministry of Education, universities and private schools and institutes to improve teacher training provision across the whole of Saudi Arabia and we have recently succeeded in engaging Government schools in our global Connecting Classrooms project which has so far forged links between 55 Saudi schools with 45 UK schools. Five schools in Saudi Arabia have received our International Schools Award for the quality of their international links and work. The scale of our work in English is unrivalled by US and other European cultural relations analogues in Saudi.

3.5 Bahrain is facing a similar demographic challenge to Saudi Arabia with 65% of the population under the age of 25. Vocational training and education are key priorities for the Government with proficiency in English seen as crucial to employability. Our Teaching Centre in Manama has 2000 students per team, 1600 of who are young learners aged 7–18. That’s almost 1% of the entire school age population studying with the British Council. Classes are mixed sex and drawn from all parts of the country. We administer exams to nearly 12,000 candidates per annum and, in collaboration with the US Embassy, sponsor an ELT teachers network that runs training workshops and an annual conference for its 850 members. The network embraces the entire ELT community in the country and includes every shade of political and religious affiliation. Our ‘Kids Read’ community events take place in shopping malls across Bahrain reaching across community divisions to bring together parents and children to read and learn. 2,200 parents and children attended these events last year. We also support the further education sector in Bahrain, working on occupational standards and vocational education, for example by supporting links between Dudley and Sunderland Colleges and the Bahrain Training Institute. With regard to Higher Education, we work at the policy dialogue level. We have made a strong contribution to the work of the Quality Assurance Authority in Bahrain and are encouraging research links with UK universities. Most recently, we have run a series of workshops for senior university staff from both the private and public sectors. These were very well attended by representatives from every major institution. Our Connecting Classrooms project is also working to develop school links and offer career development opportunities to local teachers.

3.6 We are extending our reach in English and education in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain: increasing face-to-face delivery of language teaching and exams work at our teaching centres; working with partners to offer classes and events outside of Manama, Riyadh and our other established centres; increasing teacher training and support; and strengthening and diversifying our digital offer. We are developing a programme of face-to-face and online English teacher training for state and private organisations to support improvements in English teaching standards across the region. On digital platforms we have 100,000 plus learners of English visiting our main bilingual websites Learn English and Learn English Kids, and over 35,000 teachers using free resources and forums on the Teaching English website.

3.7 We are also brokering a growing range of university and college partnerships both to open access to UK institutions and to provide support to Saudi and Bahraini HE and FE institutions through innovative collaborations. Events like November’s EDUKEX in Muharraq are providing a showcase for UK higher education institutions to raise awareness of the quality of UK education and the extensive choice of courses and institutions on offer at every level. We are also working to build connections with industry and education to support entrepreneurialism and the skills agenda, to provide young people with the opportunities they need to succeed in the workplace.


3.8 Across Saudi Arabia and Bahrain we are working to support the aspirations of young people and women to develop workplace skills, to express themselves and to gain the international experiences that will enable them to help shape the future.

3.9 The massive investment in education in Saudi Arabia is contributing to social change. Although far less dramatic than the convulsions of the Arab Spring the more subtle, incremental changes taking place in Saudi Arabia are tangible nonetheless. The participation of female Saudi Arabian competitors in the 2012 Olympics is symbolic of the changes taking place. Women are increasingly able to access both education and work in the country. 40% of our students in Saudi Arabia are women. We are providing English language classes to women in our teaching centres and also offer skills training. We have set up links between two women’s technical colleges in Riyadh with Scottish FE institutons to provide a broader curriculum to meet the ambitions of young Saudi women.

3.10 Access to the employment market nevertheless remains elusive for many Saudi women. We offer the Springboard personal development programme to women across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. Designed by UK specialists, this award winning programme was designed because research has shown that on personal development programmes, women succeed better in a supportive all female environment. Springboard enables women to achieve greater recognition and influence and to fulfil their potential in both their work and personal lives.

3.11 The British Council inaugurated the programme in Arabic to help Arab women to realise their potential and achieve better positions in both their personal and professional lives. The programme is tailored to the individual needs and aspirations of participants. It suits any working and non working woman who wants to achieve more in her life, whether it is a new job, a promotion, the opening of her own business, marriage or starting a family. The programme equips women with the confidence and skills to realise their personal goals. To date, Springboard has empowered 8,000 Saudi women to improve their lives.

3.12 Women in Bahrain experience far fewer barriers to participation in the work place. Women and girls are able to access education and other opportunities and are well represented in our teaching centre and other programmes. However, Bahraini society is increasingly divided along sectarian lines. Our position in Bahrain as an honest broker allows us to provide a safe, neutral place for people from differing political and religious traditions to meet, learn and debate together. Even when tensions were at the highest our classrooms remained full and calm and our Kids Read events open and inclusive to all sides.


3.14 Across both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain social media is mushrooming. Young people in particular are finding new ways to share ideas and express themselves using both new and more traditional media. The arts are becoming an increasingly important outlet both nationally and internationally as a new generation of male and female artists emerge.

3.15 We are supporting the burgeoning creative sector. By sharing the best of the UK’s arts and culture we stimulate ideas and debate. This year more than 16,000 people visited our Out of Britain touring exhibition of contemporary British art in Riyadh, Jeddah and Al-Khobar. Out of Britain is opening up a new visual world to audiences in the Middle East, stimulating creativity and fresh thinking. As part of the wraparound programme of outreach activities we have worked with a thousand young artists in Saudi Arabia. We have also been developing links between UK and local institutions, including an Architectural Exchange in Jeddah focusing on the city’s historic balad district and an education programme with the British Museum as part of the Hajj Exhibition.

3.16 Our Young Creative Entrepreneur Awards link the most talented young business people with top creative industries leaders in the UK. Leena El-Khereiji is co-owner/designer of Charmaleena Fine Jewellery, a Saudi brand of conceptual and contemporary wearable art. Through her success at the Young Creative Entrepreneur Awards she was able to show at this year’s London Fashion Week. She is one of the new generation of bright, entrepreneurial Saudi women that are joining the workplace.

3.17 In Bahrain our work in the arts focuses on education and encouraging entrepreneurship. We have pioneered art therapy for the disabled through a project entitled Art-Abled and are now developing a project to extend provision to special needs students. Working with local youth partners, we are developing plans for large scale events on the model of Kids Read including street art in order to harness the many creative energies released by recent events in the country.

3.18 We are also undertaking an extensive research project on the role of the arts and culture in social change across the Middle East and North Africa that will explore in detail the role of self-expression and the creative sector.

4. The Arab Spring

4.1 The Arab Spring is not a singular event—what from a distance might be seen as a tidal wave of change sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa is a far more complex and nuanced phenomenon. The countries of the region are incredibly diverse and, similar to the very different experiences of the countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, each is experiencing the Arab Spring differently.

4.2 There are, however, commonalities between Tunisia and Libya and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Notably all four have large populations of young people who share with their counterparts across the world a desire to “get on” in life and to have their voices heard. Yet there are also significant differences. The pace and form in which change is manifesting in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is different. Government-led, managed change is by its nature evolutionary rather than revolutionary which can have both positive and negative implications. Governments are motivated by the desire to maintain stability and prevent civil unrest. Yet change is happening in both countries—the massive increase in spending on education in Saudi Arabia will have a deep and long-lasting social impact. More troublingly, the widely reported sectarian divisions in Bahraini society could have very serious implications for the country’s stability if they are not addressed with due sensitivity.

4.3 The British Council has long standing relationships with the Governments of both countries. Equally we are a people-to-people organisation and work with civil society, young people and individuals, to empower them to express themselves, to realise their goals and to take part in the world. We are an enabling organisation. Through sharing skills and knowledge and our way of life we champion the benefits of an equal, open, tolerant society. We seek to bring people together across sectarian divides and serve as a safe, neutral space for learning, dialogue and free speech. Our distinct brand and identity and our operational independence from the UK Government are important tools in presenting the British Council as a neutral broker.

5. Conclusion

5.1 The British Council’s work is critical to building trust in the UK and its people in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Our brand is widely recognised and trusted; our separation from state actors is an advantage when trust in the UK Government can fluctuate in response to international events. We are respected as a neutral broker, a leading expert in English and education, and a trusted service provider. The opportunities we provide Saudis and Bahrainis are increasing their understanding of the people of the UK as well as improving their life chances by providing practical employment skills and building self-confidence.

5.2 Our long term commitment to the wider Middle East and North Africa region has allowed us to play a significant role in “Arab Spring countries” like Libya and Tunisia. Our work in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is no less important. The managed change in Saudi Arabia, as exemplified by the country’s educational revolution, is going to have a transformative effect on the lives of millions of young Saudis. We are playing our part in delivering that change through our programmes in English and education. In Bahrain we are providing a critical haven—a safe, neutral space for people from different religious and political traditions to come together through learning. In both countries, just as in countries like Egypt, we are building trust in the people of the UK.

23 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013