Universities in Saudi Arabia dominate the upper echelons of a new university ranking that looks at the top institutions in the Arab World.

But why?

Times Higher Education has published its 2017 Arab World university ranking this week, and Saudi institutions – namely King Abdulaziz University, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, and King Saud University – claim a clean sweep of the top three places.

They are joined in the top five by Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and Qatar University. But you don’t have to go much further down the list before you find Alfaisal University (ranked 9th), the fourth Saudi university in the top 10.

The list is based on the Times Higher Education's World University Rankings, including only institutions located in members of the League of Arab States.

There are 28 universities that make the cut.

Image: Times Higher Education

You can view the Arab World ranking in full here.

While Saudi Arabia claims the top spots, the most-represented nation in the table goes to Egypt, with eight universities altogether. Saudi Arabia is next, with four institutions, while Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates each have three.

However, although pipped in absolute terms by Egypt, every one of Saudi Arabia’s universities makes the top 10. It is worth taking a look at what the country has been doing to steal a march on some of its regional higher education rivals.

There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has been pouring money into its research system.

For example, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (which only has graduate students so is not eligible for this Arab World ranking), has an endowment of about US$10 billion despite only being set up in 2009.

Universities in the country have also sought to attract highly cited foreign researchers to boost their performance in research metrics.

This forms part of the country’s international approach to research collaboration; and it seems to be paying off. Alfaisal University, for example, which was only founded in 2002, achieves among the highest scores for THE’s internationalization metrics, which look at the proportion of international students, staff and research.

Moving away from oil

And then there is “Vision 2030”, the government’s ambitious plan to diversify the country away from its reliance on oil revenues.

Tellingly, among the commitments made under the vision is a desire to have at least five Saudi universities among the top 200 universities in the world based on international rankings.

Put simply, Saudi Arabia has pinpointed higher education as an area where it can broaden its economy, and it is prepared to spend a lot of money in order to get it right. Salaries, other benefits, and university facilities are of a high standard.

It is not all plain sailing, though.

As Philip Altbach, founding director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, wrote in THE, although Saudi Arabia has placed considerable emphasis on ensuring that it develops universities of world-class status, there are “structural and organisational problems that make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the academic profession to fulfill its potential”.

He cites rigid Civil Service arrangements governing academic appointments and the use of non-permanent contracts for the country’s many overseas scholars as two areas that could jeopardize the development of the country’s higher education system.

There are also some very real challenges to overcome with Saudi's aspiration to have five top 200 institutions. Currently, in the overall world rankings (not filtered by region), it has none. Indeed, only King Abdulaziz University makes the top 250.

However, according to the THE Arab World ranking, Saudi Arabia has already started making strides; its best universities out-perform many others in the region, and they have 13 years to make the step up into the elite world top 200.