Saudi Arabia school building plan hits a snag

The kingdom is planning to spend almost Dh20bn on 3,200 schools across the country for more than 1.7 million pupils. The problem, however, is a shortage of suitable land.

JEDDAH // More than 700 school construction projects are on hold across Saudi Arabia because of high costs and scarcity of suitable land, a senior education official has said. Saudi Arabia's education ministry has previously spent about six billion Saudi riyals (Dh5.88bn) to acquire 2,000 parcels of land since 2003, but more land is needed for schools to meet the needs of a population growing by more than two per cent per year.

"We have not been able to implement these projects due to the shortage of land," Abdul Rahman al Ahmad, undersecretary of the ministry of education, which is in charge of building schools, told reporters on Saturday during a workshop to discuss the land-scarcity issue. Faisal bin Muammar, the deputy minister of education, told al Madina newspaper that land scarcity for educational projects is mostly confined to large cities, especially the holy city of Mecca, where at least 100,000 pupils are studying in rented schools, according to the ministry figures.

There are 25,000 state schools in the kingdom of which 16,000 operate in buildings the education ministry rents. Getting rid of rented buildings "has been one of the priorities of the ministry", Mr Ahmad said in November after the Saudi government announced a SR20bn (Dh19.5bn) project to build 3,200 new schools across the country for more than 1.7 million pupils. Under the proposed plan, the ministry of education would construct between two and three school buildings per day to replace the rented buildings, which comprise around 80 per cent of the schools operated by the ministry.

The education minister, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, signed a SR2bn contract in July with a Chinese group to build 200 of the schools. "The ministry of education is currently undertaking a comprehensive and ambitious project to develop the educational system in the kingdom based on the realisation that the real investment should be in the sons and daughters of the nation because they will be the main pillars of the nation in future," Faisal bin Muammar, the deputy minister of education, was quoted by the Saudi Press Agency as saying then.

Education spending in the kingdom almost tripled during the past decade, with the current yearly budget a 12.8 per cent increase over the previous year, going from SR121.9bn to SR137.6bn. In addition to the property it buys, the education ministry is assigned lands suitable for school buildings in every newly developed residential area in the country by the ministry of municipal and rural affairs. But some of that property has been used for other purposes.

"In some new residential areas in Riyadh, some of the land assigned for building schools is transferred to other owners thus limiting the number of schools in these neighbourhoods, and these practices are against the law," said Mohammed al Qahtani, a Riyadh-based professor of economics at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies. "Land is becoming expensive and landowners will not sell property to the government at cheap prices," he added.

"The prices of commercial land will increase sharply if the ministry wanted to advance with its huge plan to add more than two schools a day," said Khalid al Mobaid, the owner of a brokerage firm in Riyadh. While the government is allowed to appropriate private land for public projects that it deems necessary, the process is prohibitively difficult. The ministry said in its workshop on Saturday that taking the land forcibly is a long process that would require the consent of all the owners of land surrounding the concerned site in order for the government to acquire the property and once an agreement was reached it would then require the approval of numerous state ministries.

Also during Saturday's workshop, the ministry focused on how to stabilise land prices so that more public schools can be built at more reasonable prices. "The ministry should move at a slower pace when pumping all these billions to prevent land prices from escalating," Mr al Mobaid said. In a report on the Saudi budget issued in December, Banque Saudi Fransi said it anticipated that the current growth in education spending will not be sustainable in the next decade.

"Staffing requirements comprise a large part of the education budget," said the bank in the report entitled Open for business: Saudi 2010 budget targets private sector with spending boost. Saudi Arabia also plans to build four new campuses for "newly established universities", according to the 2010 budget.