Students enrolled for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP)
Students enrolled for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP)

Dr H A Nazmi

The two regions on the two shores of the Arabian Sea, i.e., the Indian and Arabian peninsulas, which became India and Saudi Arabia respectively, have a long history of educational interaction in general, and intellectual in particular. There are enough accounts available regarding this tradition in the post Islamic Arabia and India, but there are also accounts which records this tradition before the advent of Islam, also known as the Jahilliya  period. The peninsula of Arabia, regarding ancient international relations of any kind, were divided into the south and north, where the South was fairly active in terms of trade and cultural interactions with other civilizations like the Egyptians, Babylonian and the Indus Valley in India. The northern region of the peninsula however rose to the scene of international dialogue only after the advent of Islam. In the pre-Islamic period there were trade and cultural exchanges between the two regions, as has been noted in the exemplary works of Maulana Syed Suleiman Nadvi titled Arab-o-Hind ke Talluqat and of Qazi Athar Mubarakpuri’s Arab-o-Hind Ahade Risalat Me. There are accounts of these pre-Islamic engagements in trade as well as in cultural context. These accounts clearly state that both the regions contributed to each other’s growth. For example, Hind,  a famous clan of the pre-Islamic period, is a name derived from Hind and Sindh epistemology given to the land of the Indian peninsula by these Arabs themselves. Apart from this there are many words used in Arabic language which are supposed to have their roots in Sanskrit of ancient India. The great Indian Islamic scholar Maulana  Syed  Suleiman  Nadvi,  referring  to  Hafiz  Ibn  Hajar  and  Hafiz Seuti’s works, asserts that we can be proud of having few Indian words like misk  (musk),  Zanjabeel  (Jinjer)  and  Kafur  (kapur), that  have  been  used  in  the holy Quran.

Interactions in the Pre-Islamic Period

On the basis of these historical accounts we can say that there existed, if not formal, but informal economic as well as cultural interactions between the two regions during the pre-Islamic period. All these were to grow stronger and deeper with the passage of time and with the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. From the likes of Al-Beruni to Ibn-Batuta and many more throughout the history since the advent of Islam, people from the Muslim world have been coming to the Indian subcontinent to enrich themselves through Indian knowledge, especially in the field of astronomy, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, etc. All these developments took place primarily in the Abbasid period (8-13th c), which is considered as the golden period of Islamic knowledge production.  These exchanges broke with the deepening of crisis in the Islamic empire of West Asia, which got enmired in the cobweb of their internal as well as external political and socio-economic upheavals.

Indian Muslims study the Holy Quran in a madrasa
Indian Muslims study the Holy Quran in a madrasa

Modern Developments

With the independence of India in 1947 the centuries old bond and affinity that has existed, in the intellectual, economic and cultural realms, were to be defined by various parameters and different realities of the contemporary world. Initially in the reign of the founder of the third Saudi state, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, there was very little interaction in the level of educational voyage of the Saudi students towards India because of domestic as well as global reasons. Domestically we could say that the Saudi society was and remains to some extent conservative, and is strictly overseen by the mutawas (the religious police), who did not appreciate the introduction of liberal ideas and education and therefore discouraged it. This was complemented by the rentier economic structure of the country which provides generation after generation of people with government benefits, fulfilling almost all their material needs, resulting in the poor and market-oriented educational atmosphere of the country. So we find that till the very end of the previous century the Saudi scholarship was dominated by religious education, with modern education constituting a mere fraction of country’s overall scholarly output year wise.

The new century came with new developments for the world and with many new challenges for the Saudi kingdom as well. The most prominent was the painful event of 9/11 which put Saudi Arabia at a sensitive spot as 15 out of the 19 hijackers were its citizens. The then crown prince Abdullah tried to pull back the kingdom back to its position of dignity by meeting the global demand for change regarding its educational and isolationist policies. Beside these, there was a domestic crisis burgeoning in the kingdom, i.e., huge unemployment and non-availability of marketing skills among the large chunk of the Saudi youth. The previous king late Abdullah initiated a modernization drive in the kingdom and focused especially upon the educational needs of the country. Upon him becoming the new king, Saudi Arabia saw major developments taking place, such as the ‘King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP)”, Saudi Arabia becoming member of the World Trade Organisation in December 2005 and, last but not the least, in 2007 “the King Abdullah Public Education Development Project” or Tatweer. The KASP program set up by the late king was in accordance of the needs of the labour market and hence we witness scholarships which were given were for the professional course like management, engineering and nursing, to name a few.

The scholarship program has been highly successful in terms of meeting the market needs and the outlined plan of the Saudi government. Since the introduction of the program our country India has witnessed a rise in the number of students from the kingdom enrolling in the Indian universities in different undergraduate, post-graduate and Research level programmes. As of 2014 this was the pattern of the Saudi students studying in India and they were mainly concentrated in the states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra and especially Tamil Nadu. However, the majority of the students coming to India for higher studies are on King Abdullah Scholarship Program, and there are few students who go from India to Saudi Arabia on their own expenses. The majority of them opt for vocational courses which will enable them to get jobs in the increasingly changing and competitive labour market of the kingdom. As per April 2015 statistics released by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in New Delhi, there are 165 Saudi students enrolled in 11 Indian Universities for different courses. From both the countries sincere efforts are underway to strengthen this process of educational and cultural exchange, as it will be a useful tool to deepen the bilateral relationship. Agencies like Indian Centre for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Ministry of Culture of Saudi Arabia organizes events on different occasions like on Indian national holidays and also hosts Indian cultural weeks, etc. Besides this ICCR promotes bilateral exchanges through scholarship schemes for foreign candidates. India and Saudi Arabia have signed agreements like “Agreement in the Field of Youth and Sport”, “MOU on Scientific and Educational Cooperation Between Ministry of Human Resource Development, India and Ministry of Higher Education, KSA” and other MOUs on scientific and information technology cooperation.

A newspaper report published in April 2017 states that “according to a study commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and conducted by Thomson Reuters, India has seen a 10-fold increase in its research association with Saudi Arabia in the last decade. While Indian institutions, such as the IITs, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the University of Delhi, have been involved with Saudi Arabia, there has been a noticeable increase in collaborations involving researchers at the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia and many Saudi Arabian universities.”

Indian students celebrate Independence day in the Saudi Arabian town of Yanbu
Indian students celebrate Independence day in the Saudi Arabian town of Yanbu


The field of education is very significant because both of the countries are giving importance to it for their own economic, social and political stability and prosperity. These bilateral exchanges and agreements could strengthen the soft-power of India in the kingdom as well as the region as a whole because these modern educated Saudi youth would eventually recognize the importance of further strengthening the age old cultural and educational bond between the two countries.







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