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PhD Study in Saudia Arabia - A Guide for 2018

Saudi Arabia is well known for its mineral resources and trading power, but the country is also developing as a hub for research and scholarship. The rapid expansion of the Saudi university system - with an intake increase of 50% between 2009 and 2017 - makes the country an increasingly attractive option for PhD study.

The Saudi Government is also investing heavily in its school and universities (about 23% of the country’s spending goes towards in education). This has resulted in globally ranked institutions and increasing popularity with international students.

This page explains what it’s like to study a PhD in Saudi Arabia, what opportunities are available, how to apply and how to access research funding as an international student.

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PhD opportunities in Saudi Arabia - what's on offer for 2018?

Saudi Arabia offers a great balance of academic research opportunities and extracurricular activities. Imagine studying your PhD in a university filled with high-tech equipment, lavish architecture, spa facilities and views over the red sea.

A number of Saudi Arabian universities are globally ranked, and a high proportion receive extremely generous support and funding from the Government. This has resulted in excellent PhD research centres – and several scholarships for international students.

Here are a few more specific reasons to consider a PhD in Saudi Arabia this year:

  • Globally ranked institutions - There are only 36 universities in Saudi Arabia, but several are ranked amongst the best in the world and 20 are within the top 100 Arab universities.
  • Wealth and expertise - Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth makes it one of world’s richest countries and there are ways to benefit from this as a PhD student: Saudi universities are centres of expertise for oil, gas and engineering research.
  • Welcoming international students - The Saudi Arabian higher education system seeks to enrol at least 5% of international students per year.
  • Aafaq (horizons) - A 25-year plan established in 2009 to improve higher education for the entire nation, boost scientific research and enhance international student prospects.
  • Free education - All students in Saudi Arabia receive full scholarships for their degrees. If you’re accepted for a PhD your fees and living costs will normally be covered by a scholarship.

PhD Study in Saudi Arabia
Universities 78
Oldest University King Saud University (1957)
International Students 71,773
PhD Length 2.5-3.5 years
Typical Fees Automatically covered by scholarships
Academic Year August/September to June

Hirji Islamic Calendar

Be aware that when you are searching for your PhD in Saudi Arabia some universities and Government websites will use the Hijri Islamic Calendar.

Saudi Arabian universities

The Saudi Arabian higher education system is similar to the UK, where students are required to do a Bachelors degree before proceeding on to postgraduate study. For some PhD programmes a Masters is required.

There are only thirty-six universities in Saudi Arabia (alongside well a range of higher education colleges). Twenty-six of them are funded by the Saudi Arabian Government, the others are private institutions.

Several of them are world ranked institutions and carry out research in major disciplines.

Government and private institutions

There are three different types of institution in Saudi Arabia that offer PhD programmes. These are either private or state institutions:

  • State universities - The 26 registered state universities are funded and governed by the Ministry of Education; however, they have administrative and academic autonomy.
  • Private universities - The 10 registered private universities do not receive any direct public funding and offer several PhD programmes.
  • Private colleges - Similar to the private universities, these 42 higher education colleges are authorised to provide PhD programmes.

Institutions for female applicants

Education for women (both local and foreign) in Saudi Arabia is governed by the principles of Islam.

This means men and women are not taught in the same classes. Women viewing lectures delivered by a male professor do so through a monitor.

Because of these restrictions, only 36 out of the 78 higher education universities and colleges enrol women. 3 of these are women only, including the largest women’s only university in the world, the Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University.

It is best to check directly with your university as to whether it accepts female applicants and how its programmes are organised.

The future of Saudi Arabian higher education

In November 2000 the Saudi Arabian Government devised the Higher Education Fund, used to invest in financing programmes, research centres and scholarships at its universities.

Since this King Abdulaziz Al Saud has released the Vision 2030 plan: by the year 2030 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hopes to have at least five universities in the world ranked top 200.

As you’d expect, high quality research is key to these ambitions, with the potential for excellent PhD opportunities.

Saudi Arabian university rankings

Saudi Arabia is on the way to achieving its ranking ambitions; three of the country’s thirty-six universities are placed within the first 600 of the current QS and THE league tables.


Top UAE Universities in 2018
University THE 2018 QS 2018 ARWU 2017
King Abdulaziz University 201-250 =267 101-150
King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals 501-600 =173 401-400
King Saud University 501-600 221 101-150
King Khalid University - 471-480 -
Umm Al-Qura University - 551-600 -
Al-Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University - 751-800 -
King Faisal University - 751-800 -
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do ranking matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

Saudi Arabia university cities

There are a number of major cities within Saudi Arabia with quality institutions. The majority of universities are within the capital Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia’s main university cities include: Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina, Mecca, Dammam and Thuwal.

PhD structure

The core component of a Saudi Arabian PhD programme is similar to that of the UK and other countries. You will submit and defend a thesis detailing the research you have conducted.

Programme length

Typically, PhD programmes in Saudi Arabia are 2.5-3.5 years depending upon whether you have a Masters or Bachelors degree, respectively. The maximum enrolment period is 5 years.

Institutions employ a two-semester system starting in late August/early September and finishing in June for summer. A small number of institutions will run a summer semester; dependent upon student interest in summer courses.

Assessment and examination

The content of PhD programmes in Saudi Arabia may vary depending upon the institution. However, unlike in the UK programmes include compulsory course modules.

As a full-time student you will have to complete a minimum of 30 credit-hours assessed by advanced coursework. Typically, 12 of these will be compulsory course modules and 18 electives.

The credit-hour system is similar to the USA. It works on the basis that one 50-minute lecture or two/three 50-minute lab and tutorial sessions over the 15-week semester are regarded as one credit hour.

There are typically two phases of formal examinations to the research section of the programme. In the first year you must submit a dissertation proposal and complete an oral defence. The final examination is your dissertation which you must defend in front of a Dissertation and Defence Committee, comprised of four members - three internal and one external. (Slightly different to the two examiner ‘private’ viva structure used in the UK).

Fees and funding

Saudi Arabia takes a relatively unique approach to higher education fees and funding. In order to study at a Saudi university (and receive an international visa) you must also win a full or partial scholarship.

This means that the ‘cost’ of a PhD in Saudi Arabia is very low, but the application process is also very competitive.

PhD fees

You won’t normally pay fees as a PhD student in Saudi Arabia. Instead, successful applicants will receive a scholarship (see below).

Accommodation and living costs

It can be quite expensive to live in Saudi Arabia depending upon the accommodation you choose and area you live in. Accommodation ranges from modern flats to luxury villas with swimming pools and spa facilities.

Applicants receiving a full scholarship will have their accommodation paid for them. However, those on a paid grant or partial grant may not.

Students typically live in private accommodation organised through their university. On average rent will cost 1,000-3,000 SAR (USD $267-800) per month, however if you move closer towards the capital city Riyadh it is likely you will be paying more than this.

In addition to this it is typically recommended you budget 5,636-11,252 SAR (USD $1,500-3,000) per month for living costs.

Government international student scholarships

The Government are heavily invested in global expansion of their higher education system; therefore, the Higher Education Fund has a section for scholarships to non-saudis.

There are two types of government scholarship:

  • A Full-Scholarship - the student receives all benefits: a monthly stipend, accommodation, full tuition fee, research support costs and health care cover
  • A Partial-Scholarship - the student receives some benefits: full tuition fee or tuition fee plus accommodation

The cost of living in Saudi Arabia

It can be expensive to live in Saudi Arabia, if you are on a partial scholarship ensure you will have sufficient funds for your entire study before accepting your place. Some universities may even require proof of funds/financial sponsor to show you will be able to afford to live for the entire study.

University international student fellowships

As you must have a scholarship to obtain a visa to study in Saudi Arabia a high number of institutions offer international scholarships for students who aren’t successful in applying for the Government’s scheme. These will cover:

  • Living costs - an annual stipend of 75,015- 112,523 SAR (USD $20,000-30,000) typically paid monthly, relocation support and a housing allowance
  • University costs - full tuition fee covered and research support
  • Health care - fellowships cover your dental and medical care for your entire PhD study

Typically, university fellowship applications have the same closing date as the PhD programme; this is usually October-January the year before admission. For more information and for applications check your university’s website.

Paid Scholarships

Research paid scholarships in Saudi Arabia, these are for Non-Saudi students and are not government or university funded. Typically, these include an industrial sponsor.

Applying for a PhD in Saudi Arabia

As there are only a small number of universities in Saudi Arabia there is no official central application service. You should apply to the university directly once you have ensured you meet their specific admission requirements.

Admission requirements

Different universities will have their own requirements, however there are a number of key things the majority require:

  • Degrees - you will need a minimum GPA of 3.00/4.00 (UK 2.2) in your Bachelors degree. Some institutions require a Masters degree (GPA 3.0), depending upon your chosen programme.
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE) - for some institutions this is compulsory, with a set minimum score you must achieve. For others a GRE result is advised, as it will strengthen your application.
  • Three letters of recommendation - these must be from professors you have researched with or taken detailed courses with.

Language requirements

As the majority of PhD programmes are taught in English some students may be required to sit an English language test.

This is not required for students from the USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand. Other international students must complete one of the following tests:

  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) - minimum score of 79 in the internet-based test
  • English Language Testing System (IELTS) - a minimum score of 6.0

Some universities do teach PhD programmes in Arabic and require a submitted Arabic dissertation. You should check with your chosen university as to whether you need to be fluent in Arabic for their specific programme.

The application processes

In Saudi Arabia students are encouraged to research all PhD programmes on offer throughout the different institutions.

Some PhD programmes will have projects with designated funding, others will require you to discuss your research ideas with a prospective supervisor prior to submitting scholarship and programme applications.

Following this there are several application steps you must complete:

  • Write a statement of purpose- a short statement of what you hope to achieve from your PhD
  • Write a research proposal - a concise detailing of your research project linking it to your chosen supervisor’s research
  • Complete application form - this is typically completed online on your university’s website
  • Submit education information - an official transcript and graduation certificate as well as an up to date CV
  • Provide references - you will need to provide three academic references, from professors you have been taught by or researched alongside

Applications are usually opened at the start of the October semester the year prior to your prospective start date and close the following January.

Interviews

Depending upon your application and the institution you may be invited for an interview. If you are an overseas student with a long travel time the interview will typically be conducted over video or web chat.

Interviews tend to follow a typical structure including: a description of yourself, previous research, strengths/weaknesses and questions on their research.

What happens during a PhD interview?

Your interview for a PhD in Saudi Arabia will follow a fairly standard format (apart from the fact in may take place online). Our guides give advice on what happens at a PhD interview and an overview of some questions you might be asked

Student visas

Applying for a Study Visa in Saudi Arabia can be quite complex due to restrictions for tourists and travellers. In addition, you must have obtained a scholarship from an institution, private funder or government prior to your application.

You apply for the visa at your countries Saudi Arabian Embassy and must take the following things with you:

  • Your passport with at least 12 months validity and 2 adjacent blank pages, original birth certificate and a photocopy along with three passport sized photos.
  • Your university invitation letter, electronic authorisation from a Saudi higher education institution and your education credentials.
  • A medical report signed by your doctor showing you are free of contagious diseases and a local police clearance certificate.

Once this application has been processed and accepted you will be able to obtain a residence permit upon arrival to Saudi Arabia. This is free and is valid for the duration of your study.

Students who are nationals of Gulf Cooperation Council countries do not need to apply for a Study Visa.

Working in Saudi Arabia as an international PhD student

Your Study Visa does not permit the right to employment within Saudi Arabia. It is therefore currently illegal for foreigners to undertake paid work.

You are however allowed to do unpaid internships as long as your institution has authorised it.

Health insurance

You must have health insurance prior to arriving in Saudi Arabia that will cover the entirety of your PhD programme. If you have received a full scholarship this will include health insurance.

You need to ensure that the insurance you choose meets the requirements for your visa and has an emergency evacuation component (in case you need to be taken elsewhere for treatment).

The main insurers are Bupa Saudi Arabia and Tawuniya.

Medical advice

Although most medicines are available in Saudi Arabia, international students are encouraged to bring repeat medication they need with them. Take a copy of your prescription and a doctor’s note to ensure you don’t have problems within airport customs.

Next steps

Staying in Saudi Arabia after graduation can be an attractive option for international students seeking to carry out additional research or live and work in a country with a thriving economy.

Can I work in Saudi Arabia after my PhD

You are permitted to work after graduation as long as you obtain a work permit for which you need to have been accepted for employment. The working week is typically different to other countries: Saturday-Wednesday with a Thursday and Friday weekend.

Applications for Work Visas are submitted at your country’s Saudi Arabian Embassy for the cost of 52.88 SAR (USD $14.10). For more information about the application process you should contact your nearest embassy.

Laws and regulations

Saudi Arabia is a beautiful and economically developed country; therefore, you will certainly enjoy your PhD study there. To ensure you have a comfortable transition to Saudi life it is important to abide by the country’s Islamic Laws and Regulations.

Here are some key points you should make note of:

  • Within public places men and women are kept separate and public displays of affection are not permitted.
  • Women must dress modestly and cover up at all times.
  • Consumption or possession of alcohol is not permitted.
  • Laws against drug use and trafficking are strictly enforced and can incur the death penalty.
  • For further information about Saudi laws and customs, we recommend you check the advice issued by the UK Government (or similar resources provided within your home country).

Find a PhD in Saudi Arabia

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in Saudi Arabia. Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 29/03/2018

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