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WASHINGTON—Dressed in caps and gowns, the college students packing a graduation ceremony in suburban Washington, D.C., acted like excited graduates anywhere in the United States.
Except, perhaps, when the men broke into tribal line dances. Or when the women, wearing headscarves, burst forth with zagareet, soaring trills of their tongues, in celebration.
The more than 300 graduates gathered at a hotel overlooking the Potomac River were all from Saudi Arabia, part of a massive government-paid foreign study program to earn bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees and return home to help run their country.
"You are the best of the best, and the future of our country," Saudi Arabia's cultural attaché, Mohammed al Issa, declared at the May event.
In the years following the security crackdown on Arab travelers after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian—tough restrictions kept most Arab students away from the U.S. In 2004, only about 1,000 Saudis were studying in the U.S., according to the U.S. State Department.
This past school year, Saudi Arabia sent 66,000 students to U.S. universities, four times the number before the 2001 attacks and the fastest-growing source of foreign students in the U.S., ahead of China, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Saudi influx is part of a broader increase in international students in the U.S. as American universities seek to raise tuition revenues. Some 723,277 foreign students enrolled during the 2010-2011 school year, up 32% from a decade ago.
"With the financial crunch…the [U.S.] administrators look to the international students to a degree as saviors," said Michael Launius, vice president of international students at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., where Saudi enrollment has jumped from nothing in 2005 to about 150 this past school year.
To accommodate the new Saudi students, Central Washington administrators offered to provide halal food prepared in accordance with Islamic law, or set aside space on campus for a mosque. The Saudi students declined, preferring to eat at town cafes like everyone else, Mr. Launius said.
The Saudi contingent "doesn't seem to have caused any kind of consternation and stir at all," said Mr. Launius. "I think this is a good exposure to what these folks are actually like."
Saudi Arabia's international scholarship program, launched when Saudi King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, is a key part of his efforts to equip future generations in handling the country's main challenges, including a fast-growing population and declining oil reserves.
Since taking over, the Saudi king has emphasized scientific education and exposure to foreign countries as keys to combat religious extremism and transform Saudi Arabia into a modern state. This year, the scholarship program has about 130,000 young people studying around the world, at an estimated cost of at least $5 billion since the program began.
The king's efforts to modernize, including the scholarship program, have led to constant tension between Western-influenced Saudis and a religiously educated core who hold heavy sway over society and reject modernization because it is associated with the West.
That internal tension was on display this month when Saudi Arabia, under threat of a ban from the Olympic Games, finally ended its status as the last Olympic nation to refuse to include women on its teams.
In the coming years, the Saudi monarchy will likely face mounting pressure to modernize economically and politically as the country spends down its oil wealth. The next Saudi kings will need an educated middle class, economists say, if the kingdom is to build a productive private sector and create jobs for millions of young Saudis.
The foreign scholarship program can create challenges for some students, particularly women, when they try to reintegrate into Saudi society after experiencing much more freedom abroad, some foreign students say. Unlike many international students who study in the U.S., most Saudis return to their home country after receiving their degrees, said James B. Smith, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia since 2009.
King Abdullah, who is in his late 80s and was educated by clerics in a mosque, initiated the scholarship program after persuading U.S. officials, particularly President George W. Bush, to reopen the student visa service after 9/11. At a pivotal meeting in 2005 at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, the King convinced Mr. Bush that the education program was crucial for the two countries' long-term relationship.
"The impassioned plea that the King made for this, and the long-term importance of the relationship, really made an impression on President Bush," said Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser, who attended the 2005 meeting.
As late as the 1950s, Saudi Arabia had a literacy rate below 5%. Today, the percentage of literate Saudis has reached 79%, according to the CIA World Factbook. One-third have university degrees, the World Bank says.
Even so, religious conservatives have a lingering influence over curriculum. Critics say Saudi schooling is long on theology and short on science and math. The kingdom ranked 93rd out of 129 countries in UNESCO'S 2008 quality of education index.
In the past, only upper class Saudis were educated abroad. The king's scholarship program, by contrast, reaches out to promising young people in all levels of society, says Ahmed al Omran, a Saudi journalist who earned a master's from Columbia University.
At the graduation ceremony in Washington in May, Saudi degree recipients ranged from second-generation U.S. graduates, to the first in their families to read and write.
To be eligible for the program, students must have top grades and generally study in a field targeted by the government—such as business, engineering or medicine. Females are required to be accompanied by a close male relative. The government urges students to avoid political activity and media attention, students say.
In the U.S., closer Saudi ties still generate controversy. While public criticism of Saudi Arabia has generally been muted since 2005, some U.S. critics still focus on what they say are inadequately addressed questions about a possible Saudi government role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Others say the U.S. should have less to do with an ally accused by rights groups of mistreatment of religious minorities, dissidents and others.
U.S. officials have arrested one Saudi college student on terrorism-related charges since the 2001 plots. Last month, Khalid Al Dawsari, a student on private scholarship to Texas Tech University in 2008, was convicted in federal court in Texas on charges alleging he plotted to bomb Mr. Bush's Dallas home and other targets. He wasn't part of King Abdullah's current government scholarship program.
After Mr. Al Dawsari's arrest last year, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, called for closer monitoring of Saudi students. "We have to be much, much stricter, much more realistic…when they come from countries such as Saudi Arabia," Mr. King told Fox News. Mr. King's office didn't respond to requests for comment.
Some of Saudi Arabia's harsher critics have supported the scholarship program. "If anybody is going to modernize [Saudi] society, it's going to be people" with exposure to the West, said Elliott Abrams, a conservative policy analyst who served in two Republican administrations. "In that sense I'm all in favor of it."
The long-term impact on Saudi society of so many students being educated abroad remains to be seen. At a coffee shop in the hotel where the graduation ceremony was held in Washington, the recent graduates spoke of eagerness to get back to Saudi Arabia as well as a wistfulness at leaving the U.S.
"The best four years I ever had," graduate Dana Al Mojil said of her study at Portland State University. Ms. Al Mojil was rueful about turning over the keys to her Pontiac to her younger sister and other relatives, who are still studying here. In Saudi Arabia, women aren't permitted to drive.
She will also miss the independence and responsibility she discovered in America. "I pay bills myself. I shop myself," Ms. Al Mojil said. "In Saudi, you don't do that."
Munir Zaimy, a 26-year-old with a new master's degree from Southern Methodist University, said he would return home with new ideas about education, business and other fields. When "we go back, we want things to be better," he said. "Not American, not Saudi—better."
Back in Riyadh, many students who have returned express satisfaction at settling back in with families and jobs and repaying their country with hard work. For others, especially some women, a foreign education is more complicated.
Deema al Mashabi, 24, is weighing whether to accept an offer of a king's scholarship for a master's degree in the U.S. Her mother has asked her to refuse. "She feels that I would like it so much if I do go abroad…that I would never come back," Ms. Al Mashabi says.
Her mother also worries that Saudi men may be reluctant to marry not only Ms. Al Mashabi but her sisters if Ms. Al Mashabi brings Western ways back to the family. Ms. Al Mashabi says that many of her female friends who were scholarship students return home only to move back abroad, to Dubai or elsewhere. Many who come back to stay are unhappy, she said.
In the Saudi kingdom, more than 40% of young Saudi women job-seekers are unemployed because custom and religious code limit where they can work.
Indeed, conservative Saudi clerics have targeted the kingdom's scholarship program, saying it is detaching young Saudi men and women from their religious mooring. "The scholarships dragged woe onto our nation," Sheik Nasser al-Omar told Saudi Arabia's al Sharq newspaper in May.
Elite members of Saudi society have long placed faith in U.S. universities. There are more members of King Abdullah's cabinet holding U.S. doctorates—at least seven—than in President Obama's, which includes two, not counting honorary doctorates. Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al Saud, brought closer in the line of succession by the June death of brother Prince Nayef, could one day become the first U.S.-educated Saudi king, thanks to his bachelor's degree from Redlands College in Redlands, Calif. in the 1960s.
Saudi students have been linked to U.S. universities since the first days of the kingdom. Standard Oil of California—based near the University of Southern California in Los Angeles—signed the first major oil deal with King Abdullah's father, in the 1930s. After that, many upper class Saudis sent their sons and a few daughters to USC.
"That first wave going to the U.S.—they had tremendous impact on the way this country developed," said Abdul Rahman al Zamil, a Saudi businessman and former deputy commerce minister who was one of six brothers to become a USC alum.
But the open door for Saudi students slammed shut in 2001.
"You can't imagine how they treated you," said Sami al Obeid, a Saudi businessman who attended the University of Oregon in 2005-2006. Mr. al Obeid said his U.S. visa was revoked mid-school year, without explanation, and he never finished his U.S. degree.
U.S. universities said they lost about $40 million a year in tuition from Middle Eastern students after 9/11.
After the 2005 meeting between King Abdullah and Mr. Bush, the U.S. government cleared a six-month backlog of Saudi visa applications, said Ms. Townsend, the former homeland security adviser. The visa application process was overhauled to be more efficient.
Behind the scenes, security was tightened. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi Arabia's domestic intelligence agency intensified cooperation and screening of visa applicants, Ms. Townsend said. Diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks show U.S. and Saudi officials discussing increased monitoring of Saudi students in the U.S., and follow-up interviews by Saudi intelligence of Saudi students while home on school holidays.
On the U.S. political front, top State Department officials briefed members of Congress privately, detailing security measures, Ms. Townsend said. Supporters hoped to head off any scenario in which a member of Congress would "stand up and begin to lambaste the Saudis publicly," she said.
The heightened security for the students has yielded rewards. Both U.S. and Saudi experts credit Saudi counterterror officials under Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a U.S. university alum, with alerting Americans to two Al-Qaeda-linked bomb plots since 2010. Cooperation on the student applications helped bring Saudi and U.S. intelligence agencies to a "level of transparency as good as it is with Britain," Ms. Townsend said.
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A version of this article appeared July 28, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Saudi Students Flood In As U.S. Reopens doors.