- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) — The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, has denied there is Western pressure to change educational systems that concentrate on teaching the Koran and other material of the Muslim faith.

Analysts saw the GCC denial of Western pressure as a response to Islamist critics of modernization and of any deflection from traditional Muslim education.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, the GCC groups Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

GCC Secretary-General Abdel Rahman Atiya said Wednesday night no Western pressures existed and the GCC countries intended to modernize their education programs within the framework of the values, habits and traditions of the Muslim religion.

"We are continuously seeking to keep up with modernization and developments of our age, but we will not accept outside dictations from any particular culture," Atiya said.

Saudi Education Minister Mohammed Ahmed al-Rashid said last January that the oil-rich kingdom "was not planning in any way to introduce amendments to its education system in response to Western demands."

Last month, the Saudi authorities, as guardians of the Islamic faith and in particular its rigorous Wahabbi sect, denounced Western accusations that the kingdom's rigid educational system based on Islamic teachings was partially responsible for the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and terrorist groups.

The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, in a recent report, contended that the Saudi educational system contributed to radicalizing Saudi youth and Muslim students in Saudi-supported schools around the world.

But according to the Saudis, the extremist trend was the result of misinterpretations of Muslim principles and the injustice felt by Muslims, especially in Palestine.

Last year, the U.N. Development Fund published an important assessment of education in the Arab world and its shortcomings. Entitled "Arab Human Development Report 2002," and written by Arabs, it found illiteracy rates to be higher than the average in developing countries and that the number of illiterate people, the majority of whom are women, was increasing.

In Saudi Arabia, rising problems of unemployment and a higher awareness of the poverty in which some Saudis live has prompted calls for educational reform.

The official unemployment rate is 31 percent and there is an ever-increasing number of school and university graduates for whom work must be found. This has resulted in a policy of Saudisation, a policy of replacing foreign employees with Saudi citizens.

But many positions still go to foreigners because there are not enough Saudi nationals with the proper educational qualifications.

Prince Abdullah bin Faisal, head of the country's Investment Authority, has said a huge revision in the curriculum and a major restructuring of the educational system was required. This was needed to produce a work force with the needed linguistic and practical skills.

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