Skills training at Sulaiman Al Rajhi Medical College Skills training at Sulaiman Al Rajhi Medical College Dominique Waterval

First cohort of 'Maastricht'-trained Saudi doctors

In Body
Written by  Jos Cortenraad Wednesday, 10 June 2015 14:55

In 2009 Sulaiman Al Rajhi called in the help of Maastricht University (UM). The billionaire Saudi businessman dreamed of establishing a private university of medicine in his homeland. Now, his dream has become reality: the first doctors will graduate from the Sulaiman Al Rajhi Medical College this spring.


Oil revenue may have made Saudi Arabia extraordinarily rich, but the country is still thirsty for knowledge. With huge investments in schools and universities, it is making rapid progress. And eager businesspeople and sheiks are starting up their own initiatives. Among them is Sulaiman Al Rajhi. Thanks to banking and a vast chicken-farming empire, his personal fortune is estimated at a cool seven billion dollars. Ten years ago he presented his plans for a private university and medical faculty in the Al-Qassim region; a 'health city' in the middle of the desert.

Building the university was no problem. The key was to come up with a curriculum and overarching education system – and Al Rajhi had his eye on Maastricht. For UM, this was a great opportunity: it meant recognition for UM’s education system and fit well with the university’s international ambitions. Not to mention the lure of additional revenue; the businessman was willing to pay well for Maastricht skills and expertise.

But the then UM president Jo Ritzen, director Nick Bos and dean Harry Hillen of the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) took their time to sign the lucrative ten-year contract. "We're very careful when it comes to choosing partners", says Dominique Waterval, who would become the project’s organiser. "Maastricht has a fantastic global reputation. Not only thanks to Problem-Based Learning, but also because the FHML’s educational publications are among the most highly cited in their field. UM is keen to share knowledge and export its education system. The fact that this was a non-profit, private project with guaranteed investments in quality made the decision easier."

The Saudis celebrated the signing of the contract in exuberant fashion. “‘We cracked the doors from Maastricht’, the dean shouted. That says it all", Waterval laughs. He wasn’t new to the ways of Saudis. "I spent a year working for a consultancy in Saudi Arabia. So I already knew the country a bit, and I knew how education is organised there. As an educationalist, translating our model to the Arab world is a great challenge."

He also had personal motives to take on this task. "Theo van Gogh had just been murdered and the discussion on Islam was at its peak. Saudi Arabia is a melting pot of cultures. Especially in the education sector, Pakistanis, Syrians, Palestinians, Americans and Sudanese work together. I was curious as to how the non-Islamic, European culture would fit in. I figured it was the perfect opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of one another, to bridge the gap between two worlds.

“Six years later, I’d venture to say the differences aren't all that enormous. The students here are working towards their future, just like in every university. They want to become doctors, specialists. Education and knowledge exchange brings people together and helps to resolve conflicts."

The assignment: to produce the first cohort of medical doctors within six years. But how do you transplant an entire educational concept on the other side of the world? There are no ready-made blueprints for this situation. "True", says Mohammed Meziani, an educationalist who has been involved with the project since 2011. "This isn't a satellite faculty like those of other large universities, staffed by UM teachers. Instead Maastricht shares its system with the local staff, providing them with teaching materials, readers and lectures. And UM professors support the Saudi teachers in terms of both subject matter and didactics.”

The information flow is controlled by the project team, consisting of Dominique Waterval, Marjolijn Tinnemans and Mohammed Meziani. "Implementing PBL is complicated, because almost no one in the Middle East has experience with it”, says Meziani. “And traditional Saudi medical programmes don’t involve a lot of practical clinical training. In the Netherlands it forms a much larger part of the curriculum. So UM conducts an annual evaluation of the quality of the education students receive at the new college."

The language barrier posed few problems, adds Waterval. "The level of English is usually good, especially because we’ve scheduled a year of general classes before the programme starts to fill any gaps. Our role is primarily that of a broker. We take care of the logistics, equipment for the practicals, coordination between the two faculties, and regular exchanges and visits. We’ve invested a lot of time and energy in building up relationships. The people in Maastricht are usually very motivated to help their Saudi colleagues. To be honest, we’re surprised at what we’ve been able to achieve in just five years. The PBL system is in full swing with a local flavour, and even the practical components are integrated well in the new programme."

This spring the first graduates will receive their medical degrees. According to initial benchmark tests, their final attainment level matches that of graduates of public Saudi universities. Al Rajhi has intimated that he is satisfied with Maastricht’s contribution. "We’re already talking tentatively about the next batch of students", says Meziani. "And there’s talk of starting the same programme for women, a possibility we took into account when designing the faculty. In Saudi Arabia, men and women are separated very strictly. A medical faculty for women would complete the project."

Dominique Waterval (1978) has a bachelor’s degree in International Economics and a master's degree in Education Sciences from UM. Before joining the UM School of Health Professions Education in 2009 he worked for a consulting firm in various countries, including Mozambique and Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed Meziani (1983) studied Physiotherapy and Education Sciences in Utrecht, followed by a master's degree in Organisational Sciences. After working for several consulting firms, he joined the UM School of Health Professions Education as a project manager in 2012.

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