Intercultural Education: Saudi International Students in a Mixed Gender Environment

This study addresses the issues that the Saudi students may face as the international students in the UK. With the growing number of the international students worldwide and regular arrival of the Saudi students to the EU (particularly British universities), there are good reasons for studying the main negative influences on their identity and the ways of avoiding these challanges. A great difference between the Saudi and British world predetermined by the historical and religious realities is the main aggravating factor for the Saudi international students’ migration. The research also considers such possible complications as a cultural shock, academic and social adjustment, intercultural sensitivity and competence, international students’ security and rights, and internationalization. The paper explains how the educational institutions and fellow students can become helpful in raising the Saudi students’ intercultural competence, minimizing the barriers, and easing the adjustment process.

Modern world tends to increase pace in almost every aspect of life, including economic development, information flow, and resource exchange. This tendency inevitably results in the expansion and intensification of the globalization process, which provides benefits in a number of areas, but still might be a quite sensitive issue. Cultural peculiarities of people predetermine their worldview and behaviour in different situations. For the younger population, intercultural education is the most common way to get familiar with traditions and customs of the other nations and raise intercultural competence. Nowadays, such competence is obligatory for the citizens of different countries, who search for the personal and business development. Moreover, intercultural migration of young people has a serious impact on the identity formation as international students have to spend a considerable amount of time in the foreign environment.

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The most outstanding opposition between the cultural differences can be observed in the example of the females’ treatment in the Arab and European countries. However, the knowledge of such attitudes is only the top of the iceberg. The real differences that can become serious barriers to intercultural communication lie deeply and predetermine great disparities between the world perceptions. Even though the females’ upbringing and treatment are the most challenging differences between the Arab and European worlds, intercultural migration is a complicated process for both males and females. This paper focuses on the difficulties that globalization can present for individuals of different cultural and religious origins during their movement from one environment into another. The parts that would be helpful to consider, among the basic aspects of the problem, refer to the main characteristics of the Saudi international students and growth of their number, gender segregation in the Saudi society as a historical reality, factors that can influence students’ identity, barriers to intercultural adjustment and possible gender issues. Saudi Arabian male and female students can experience certain differences in the norms of two worlds while transitioning from the gender segregated society to a mixed one. As a rule, the intercultural competence of such students can become the key factor in the interaction and adaptation to the new environment.

International students from Saudi Arabia face various obstacles when moving from a gender segregated environment to a mixed one. These obstacles have an impact on the results that they achieve while completing their course abroad. In order to understand the issue, it is necessary to define the starting point of a scholarship program that enables students from Saudi Arabia to study outside of their country and deepen the analysis to include religious and cultural reasons for gender segregation in Saudi Arabia.

Since the introduction of the KASP program in 2010, the number of Saudi international students has sponsored more than 70,000 young individuals to study abroad. By 2015, this number is supposed to grow to approximately 140,000 (Ministry of Higher Education, 2010). Consequently, 25 countries of the world welcome more and more Saudi students each year. Among such, the UK deserves a particular attention for its widely known and highly ranked Oxford and Cambridge Universities, London School of Economics and Political Science, University College London and other educational institutions. UKCISA (2015) reported that the number of the Saudi international students in 2013-2014 reached 9,060 people. Business, administrative and technological studies were the most popular choices of such students. In terms of gender division, the number of females from Saudi Arabia studying in the UK is slightly different than that of males (UKCISA, 2015). Anyway, the special position of the Saudi international students in comparison to others is predetermined by two factors. Firstly, they are sponsored by the government and get both financial and academic support. Consequently, they have fewer problems with accommodation, employment, and university fees. Secondly, they represent a completely different segregated world that makes them face serious intercultural challenges. Mainly adjustment to the new norms and obtaining intercultural competence skills are the tasks they have to encounter together with the academic ones. Therefore, the research of the Saudi students’ experience should consider the two major issues: average international students’ experience and specific cultural challenges based on the oppositions determined by the mixed-segregated environments. Various simple situations can make such students perplexed.

Gender Segregation in Saudi Arabia

The history of the country shapes the values and beliefs of people throughout generations. Therefore, a particular attention of the research on the Saudi Arabian students has to be paid to the country’s history and formation of the Islamic religious communities that shape the worldview and expectations from the environment.

The main norm in the Saudi Arabia society is its gender segregation that is evident in every public and private institution. There is no sphere that would be an exception. Be it schools, universities, entertainment places, or other sectors, one cannot meet the mixing of genders (Mayer, 2000). For instance, all schools regardless of being private or public are single-sex. Both universities and college system does not provide any possibility for the mixed gender studies. The only exception to this rule is the KAUST University that was founded for the international students. Even though it is widely criticized by the native dwellers, it provides citizens with some basic ideas about the mixed-gender education. As for the other public sphere, one can hardly find any that would unite males and females. The restaurants, for example, are commonly divided into two separate parts for males and families. Hence, women can hardly visit restaurants without their families. In the context of this study, there are good reasons for finding out the underlying reason for segregation in the public spheres.

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The historical perspective is the best one to explain such deep gender segregation in the contemporary Saudi society. As for the Saudis, their view on the gender roles can be defined as traditional one. They are strongly persuaded that a man has to provide security and wealth to the family while a woman is responsible for everything happening at home including the household, family, and children. Such worldview is common for most countries of the world and is not based on the Islamic principles only. However, the difference betweeb the Saudi life and the popular traditional view on the gender roles is supported by a strong division of two separate worlds. These worlds are not male and female, but private and public ones. The public world is associated with economics, business, politics, and religion, and it is dominated by men. On the contrast, the private domain of the home, family, and intimacy is associated with women.

One of the key values for Saudi Arabian citizens is Ired, the concept that stands for the sanctity of family and chastity of a woman, and which might be lost in the case of adultery of any kind. The vast majority of citizens of Saudi Arabia are raised in the spirit of the sanctity of Ired and the necessity for its protection, which results in complete separation of males and females in their public lives. Primarily, these historically developed views shape the main difference in the values of students from different worldviews. Hence, the concept of Ired can be regarded as the main one that predetermines gender separation and complicate adjustment to the contradictive environment. The complexity of this notion is caused by secularity rather than religiousness. It does not originate from the Quran, but had existed even among the pre-Islamic Arabs (Baki, 20014). Even though it can be observed in various Arab countries, Baki (2004) defined the Saudis as the most sensitive to Ired nations. Their society has been structured to behave in a way that makes it difficult or even impossible to lose Ired. In such a way, many restrictions are based mostly on the tribe’s and family’s honour that is passed throughout generations.

Consequently, there is a great number of various restrictions for the Saudi women in the society. Among such, since the younger age, all Saudis know that women cannot stay close or spend time with a man unless he is her family member. Some scholars argue that gender segregation is based on the Islamic teaching and encourages respect towards chastity and person’s Ired (Baki, 2004). Accordingly, the existing norms of Saudi Arabia are aimed to protect people’s, and particularly women’s, virtue and Ired that in many cases, is associated with sexuality and eroticism related to one’s appearance or behaviour common in the mixed gender societies.

As a result, it is obvious that the Saudi international students have to be prepared for the experience that awaits them in the Western world. Complete change of the societal norms presupposes an entirely different environment that practically denies one’s familiar rules and beliefs. An average Saudi Arabian male is used to communicating with the male friends and limiting his relationship with another gender only to a mother, sister, wife, and other family members. Hence, the first exposure to a new mixed gender environment in the UK or any other country would become a critical experience due to the presence of unrelated females and patterns of their behaviour that are not limited by Ired’s respect or other Quran virtues. The experience of such transition demands serious support to let a student develop necessary skills and communicate freely with the fellow students and professors.

Influence on the Students’ Identity

International education is a peculiar experience for student mostly because of its deep influence on the individual’s identity. The identity of the Saudi students is especially vulnerable to the influences of a foreign culture. Such a long-term intercultural migration can lead to various consequences. As the education in the UK lasts for at least several years, students need to undergo various changes in the process of adjustment to the new culture. Such issues as a cultural shock, academic and social adjustment, intercultural sensitivity and competence, international students’ security and rights demand particular attention when analysing the possible experiences and consequences. Hence, the main aspects of such experiences include, but are not limited to the social and academic experiences, psychological and sociological needs, students’ rights and security.

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Cultural shock is often predetermined by the cultural and social changes. This term is mostly used for the collective influence of strange experiences on cultural migrants. Even though changes in the environment are always stressful, they are less difficult when a newcomer is familiar with the differences in advance. At the same time, the false information or complete unawareness can make the migrated person behave in the way that is common to the home country. As a result, such people feel lost in translation (Zhou et al., 2008). According to Cullingford and O’Neill (2005), primarily, the native-language instructions that would teach the necessary behaviour, academic and survival skills, cultural information and citizenship facts are the obligatory steps that would let students avoid many adjustment difficulties. Moreover, different degrees of the intercultural and educational competencies are also the essential features that can predetermine reaction of the international students (Cullingford & O’Neill, 2005). Zhou et al. (2008) supported a common view on the issue and emphasize such aspects as culture learning, stress and coping, and social identification as the major ones to be regarded when focusing on how to avoid the negative consequences of the cultural shock.

Anrade (2006) has drawn particular attention to a close interconnection between the issues of social and academic adjustment. Primarily, the knowledge of the English language is one of the keys to easier adjustment due to the ability to ask and comprehend the necessary information. Moreover, the knowledge of language contributes to a better comprehension of the native speakers’ worldview. For this reason and due to the absence of friends and close people in a new country, university authorities have to provide special support to the foreign students. With regard to significant disparities between the UK and Saudi worldview, particular attention has to be paid to the formation of the newcomer’s cultural competence and awareness from the first days of studies.

With the growth in the number of international students in the globalized world, the scholars pay more attention to the issue of intercultural adaptation and education. Gill (2007) has focused on the structure of the British higher education in order to investigate the possible means of facilitating and supporting international students’ learning experience in the UK. As a result, it was proven that such experience should be analysed with regard to three aspects of stress ‐ adaptation ‐ growth (Gill, 2007). As a result, it becomes obvious that intercultural adaptation is a process of intercultural learning. If such process is meant to bring more knowledge about profound differences in the lives and cultures overseas, the level of difficulty to adjust will depend on the number of differences between the two worlds. The students have to transform their understanding of self-knowledge, awareness of others’ values and worldview (Gill, 2007). Consequently, for the Saudi students, understanding of the British values, worldview, and lifestyle will become an acquaintance with a completely different world.

One more serious issue is security and students’ rights. Till nowadays, there exist a great number of unresolved issues that the foreign students face, including personal safety, language proficiency, finances, housing, loneliness, and racism (Margison et al., 2010). While many of these issues among the Saudi students are resolved by the scholarship programs, there still is a critical racism problem based on the Arabs and Muslims-related stereotypes. Islamophobia has become a true problem for many EU immigrants including the Arab students due to the terrorism issues and national security policy (Fekete, 2009). With the anti-terrorism legislation, selective migration regulations of the EU restrict immigration of undesirable people (Fekete, 2009). However, these policies contribute to the negative perception of the Arabs and particularly the Saudi students. As a result, students are vulnerable to hostility in the strange environment; they can become even less flexible to the existing cultural changes. Such a negative attitude may not only create additional barriers but also eliminate any possibility of the trouble-free adjustment.

Due to the aspects mentioned above, one can conclude that the social identity of any international student will be definitely influenced by the exterior factors. However, the strength of such impact can depend not only on the personal sensitivity and vulnerability but also on ethnic and citizenship identities. The values and character of a person that have been shaping for entire life cannot stay unnoticed in this case. Moreover, if one regards the situation in the light of the social connections of a person, it will become obvious that any international student have to build new relations within the territory of a new country. However, the old ones do not disappear; they are supported by the ability to communicate via phone, social networks, and random visits. Faas (2009) considered such social connections complicated, dynamic, and dependent on ethnicity and citizenship. The reason is that these two categories may influence the strength and number of one’s connections. Moreover, they predetermine the mode of students’ thinking about their identities (Faas, 2009). According to the research held by Faas (2009), one can conclude that international students should have not a singular but several identities unified in a hybrid ethno-national one. It is an outcome of the governmental policies, educational and social experience, social positioning, nationality, ethnical background, and migration history (Faas, 2009). In the context of this study, one can conclude that the Saudi international students in the UK are likely to have much in common with the Turkish ones due to the same religion. However, they would even acquire a higher ethnic dimension of hybridity as the rules within the country are stricter. To sum it up, investigation of the international students’ identity should be definitely supported by paying attention to social class, schooling, and consequent appearance of the hybridized cosmopolitan identities.


Saudi Students Adjustment

During the last decade, the internalization of the higher education has made the scholars study the process of students’ migration and its influence on their immediate and further life. This process is important for almost all spheres of young individuals’ lives including their motivation, goals, and experiences (Brooks & Waters, 2011). Research conducted by Brooks and Waters (2011) is focused on the proficiency and life situations of students from East Asia, Europe, and the UK; it provides a deeper understanding of the common and controversial features of their experiences. Being representatives of different parts of the world, all students search for the better perspectives in higher education. However, the comparison of the Middle East students’ and the European or western ones shows that they commonly feel it more difficult to keep pace with the rapid changes and face much more barriers on their way of academic and social adjustment (Brooks & Waters, 2011). Therefore, one can consider the closed character of the Arab society the underlying reason for such a difficult adjustment. Moreover, additional policies and practices should encourage universities to provide support to such students.

Another obstacle for the international students from Middle East and, in particular, Saudi Arabia is the low motivation level (Brooks & Waters, 2011). Such issue is predetermined by the sponsorship as the responsibility-bearer that aims to simplify students’ life in a new country by providing financing and housing (Gauntlett, 2006). Even though there exist some pre-departure discourses for international students, they are proved to be not highly motivational (Gauntlett, 2006). In addition, the challenges these individuals face in the new country and inability to adjust to them quickly decrease the motivation level even more. The upbringing and life in the Arab country make most young people unwilling to search for help or support from their relatives, who stay abroad. Moreover, following strict religious rules while living in the segregated society limits the potential talents of a person or his/ her desires for changes or disobedience. In such a way, for young people, staying away from home becomes problematic in many ways due to the reserved mindset and social identity that are completely different from those of the Europeans around them.

International students can face numerous academic, social, or personal problems during their adaptation to a new life in an unfamiliar academic and cultural environment. After reviewing relevant literature, it appears that there is not much information considering the experiences of the Saudi students in the UK. According to Shaw (2009), few studies on the topic are predetermined by the historical factors. For a long time, Saudi Arabia has been characterized as an isolated country with “significant percentage of nomadic Bedouins” (Shaw, 2009). Nevertheless, the situation changed in the end of the 20th century. Oil money became the main economic factor that penetrated into its deeply traditional life (Shaw, 2009). The nation had to open its barriers to the outside world and global influence. With the implementation of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, the state began sending its students abroad quite massively. However, it was only one reason for Saudi Arabians’ reluctance to help their young people to study in other countries. The second reason was the restrictive religious discussion on permission to travel to the lands of the unfaithful. Even though Muslims believe that education is a religious duty, studying in the native country has always been considered a better alternative. However, the later analysis of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings suggested another idea (Kandehlevi, 2008). The prophet asserted that for those, who leave their home to look for knowledge, “the angels spread out their wings”; these words can be interpreted as an obvious support of the international studies (Kandehlevi, 2008). Therefore, nowadays, the majority of Saudi Arabians share the idea that the abroad studies can become a useful and interesting experience.

Finally, the development of such characteristics as personal adaptation resilience and intercultural competence is crucial for the Saudi students in order to get a successful international experience (Shaw, 2009). With a great number of changes that they have to pass, the resilience can be helpful to bounce the trauma and stress back. Additionally, intercultural competence is a significant contributor to cultural adaptation, realization of goals, and further life in a foreign country (Shaw, 2009). The knowledge and comprehension of the external and internal outcomes, in this case, becomes a key to success.

Possible Differences in the Male and Female Reactions

The Saudi sponsorship program does not divide candidates according to gender and gives females equal chances to study abroad (MHE, 2010). As a result, the UK CISA (2015) reports the equal growth in the male and female students from Saudi Arabia. Even though, this perspective ensures an equal view on genders, the Arab society obviously adds some serious differences into the process of their adjustment.

There are different ways to merge with the new environment. The reactions of people and behaviour during the process of adjustment allow one understand the possible complications. Therefore, there are good reasons for finding some examples of the major themes or patterns, representing the Saudi students’ experience of getting accustomed to the mix-gender environment. Both male and female students have to overcome difficulties in the process of finding their place in a new socio-cultural environment while remaining loyal to their system of beliefs. Hence, one can study the possible differences with regard to a variety of attitudes and rules of the native country.

Despite similar grounds for the discomfort at the beginning of the studies in the new country, male and female students would struggle with different sides of emotional confusion. Nyamayaro and Saravanan (2013) provided evidence that the gender differences really matter in the students’ adjustment to the new environment. While depression was not proved to have a significant gender-related prevalence, stress and anxiety among women had a considerably higher level (Nyamayaro & Saravanan, 2013). Therefore, one can conclude that females find adjustment to the new environment more painful; they are more emotionally vulnerable and sensitive. Particular attention should be paid to the female students and their contact with the fellow representatives of the opposite sex. Having been previously segregated from men, they are not likely to be familiar with the social situations that involve males.

While dealing with the motivation level that is low among the Middle East students, one should mark out that such motivation is suppressed in females even more (Brooks & Waters, 2011). The rules in the segregated society, as well as upbringing that predetermines the inclination to be obedient instead of manifesting personal desires, are the aspects that impact the behaviour of the Arab females in their everyday life as well in making decisions.

On the other hand, both male and female students may face such type of cultural difficulties as linguistic obstacles. It can even be hard for them to pick the vocabulary in order not to seem impolite or disrespectful. It would be necessary to arrange different preparation for the male and female students, who are planning to study abroad. English proficiency is crucial to their academic and communication success. With regard to considerable differences between Arabic as an official Saudi language and English as the UK official language, students face a double trouble. The languages belong to different language families and are absolutely different in syntax, grammar, phonetics, and writing. In his research, Alqahtani (2011) revealed the importance of an individual approach to the Saudi students that are studying in the UK. In addition, the difficulties related to the language learning are also tightly interconnected with the cultural differences.

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Modern society is characterized as the rapidly developing and striving for globalization one. Nevertheless, the issues concerning gender segregation remain urgent. Speaking about the countries of Far and Middle East, a lot has been done with the aim to overcome the differences in the men and women’s treatment. At the same time, intercultural education that provides new experiences to young people is a great way to share positive skills and values among nations. Intercultural studies have a positive influence on both genders. Consequently, the development of their personalities and general perception of the opposite sex would be closer to that of the Western society. The result of such studies should be expressed by an increase of self-confidence and resilience and decrease in the levels of anxiety and uncertainty. Cots and Lludra (2013) emphasize that the aim of intercultural education is “to promote relationships, interaction and exchanges among people in a global society.” Hence, such type of education provides more possibilities to a person by shaping a new identity and adding to the worldview. Although there still appear a number of controversial issues, people should get closer to realizing that globalization can bring a great number of advantages, and the liquidation of segregation, at least in the educational sphere and employment market, will lead to the country’s sustainable development.

This research offers several possible solutions that should become helpful for the adjustment of the Saudi international students. As for the main features that become advantageous for the international Saudi students in the process of adaptation, one should point out assertiveness, flexibility, positive views, openness, and strong sense of goals (Shaw, 2009). The recommendations regarding the language studies are based on several advices: implementing preparation courses in the native Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, improving English for Academic Purposes and providing special advice services to the Saudi students in the United Kingdom (Alqahtani, 2011).

To sum it up, there can appear a great number of different situations referring to the subject of a cultural exchange between Saudi Arabia and other countries. This study focused on the issues that Saudi students may face being the international students in the UK. With the growing number of international students worldwide and regular arrival of the Saudi students to the EU, the notions of cultural migration, social identity, adjustment, and competence become more and more timely. There are good reasons for studying the main negative influences of the foreign environment on young people’s identity and the ways of avoiding these challanges. The great difference between the Saudi and British worlds predetermined by the historical and religious context is the main aggravating factor caused by migration of the Saudi international students. Hence, it is important to investigate peculiarities of interaction between the gender segregated and mixed cultures.

Cultural shock, social and academic adaptation, rights and security issues demand particular attention in the cases of students’ intercultural migration. Apparently, most difficulties are connected with the preservation of cultural identity in an unfamiliar society, obtaining new features of identity, and overcoming linguistic obstacles. The possibility to get the new experiences and skills in a foreign society become a unique chance to develop a new mixed identity that can be defined as a hybrid one and provide new worldview. Developing intercultural resilience and competence is crucial in order to get prepared for the future adjustment problems. This research may help the Saudi students adopt to other cultures without losing own identity.

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