A turning point for Saudi Arabian affiliations in the 2023 Highly Cited Researchers list from Clarivate

A turning point for Saudi Arabian affiliations in the 2023 Highly Cited Researchers list from Clarivate

A turning point for Saudi Arabian affiliations in the 2023 Highly Cited Researchers list from Clarivate

This study builds upon our more in-depth report of May 2023, which analysed affiliation (switch) patterns of Highly Cited Researchers (HCRs) who indicated primary affiliations to Saudi Arabian institutions between 2014-2022, and at the same time a foreign secondary affiliations. Many of these secondary affiliations actually turned out to be their true primary employers. Investigations of EL PAÍS, revealed that some of the HCRs obtained financial incentives to switch their affiliation to a Saudi Arabian institution, without having to switch employer. 

This study (full report here) analyses the evolution of such cases in the newly released Highly Cited Researchers list of 2023, released on November 15th, 2023. 

Our results revealed the following:

  • 76 researchers were primarily affiliated to a Saudi Arabian institution in the 2023 Highly Cited Researchers list, down from 109 HCRs in 2022. This is the biggest drop in the past 10 years and the first drop after a continuous increase of primarily affiliated Highly Cited Researchers in the past 6 years. 
  • Percentage of Saudi HCRs who have a foreign secondary affiliation, is 51% (down from 75% in 2022), which is over 5 times higher the average share of foreign secondary affiliations in the other benchmarks countries. 
  • 44 of the 2022 Saudi Arabian HCRs remained with the same primary affiliation in 2023. 60% of them had secondary affiliation from another country. 
  • 66 were not listed anymore amongst the Saudi Arabian HCRs in 2023: 13 switched their primary affiliation to an affiliation of another country. 52, disappeared from the HCR list in 2023. Over 80% of those cases had a secondary affiliation country in 2022. 
  • For those 52 HCRs which aren’t listed anymore in 2023, is not not clear if a.) they were excluded by Clarivate through their more strict exclusion criteria, b.) they aren’t anymore amongst top1% most cited scientists or c.) the HCR decided to not be listed anymore, e.g for the reason of the negative impact the mediatisation of their cases had on their researchers careers. 
  • There were 32 newly listed Saudi Arabian HCRs in 2023: 12 HCRs who were listed in 2022 under a non-Saudi Arabian primary affiliation, switched their primary affiliation to a Saudi Arabian institution in 2023. 20 of the new Saudi HCRs in 2023 have not been listed in the Highly Cited Researchers list in 2022. 50% of them have a secondary affiliation to another country.

Focus per Saudi Arabian institution

  • King Saud University (KSU) still tops the list with most affiliated HCRs, namely 32 HCRs. While in the past year, it was followed by King Abdulaziz University (KAU), this university has dropped to a third its number of HCRs, namely from 31 HCRs in 2022 to 12 HCRs in 2023. The share of HCRs with a second foreign affiliation dropped from to 87% to  68% for KSU and from 87% to 42% for KAU between 2022 and 2023.
  • King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) grew from 15 to 18 HCRs in 2023, positioning itself as the second Saudi Arabian university in terms of numbers of affiliated HCRs. The share of HCRs, which have a foreign secondary affiliation was halved from 22% in 2022 to 11% in 2023.  
  • King Abdulaziz University, according to those first estimations, would lose more than 50 positions and fall out of the Top 200 in ShanghaiRanking’s ARWU 2024.. This will probably reduce the number of Saudi institutions within the Top 200 of the ShanghaiRanking to 1 university, getting further away from the Kingdom’s objective of its Vision 2030 to reach 5 universities in the Top 200 of international rankings by 2030.

Focus per Secondary Affiliation Country

  • China tops the list with 7 Saudi Arabian HCRs who indicated a Chinese secondary affiliation. It’s the only country with more than 3 HCRs, in contrast to  6 countries in 2022.  It’s followed by Italy, India and the UK, who all have 3 HCRs who indicate a primary Saudi affiliation.
  • The biggest changes, compared to 2022, can be seen for Germany and Spain. While Spain was the second country in this list, with 11 Saudi HCRs indicating a secondary Spanish affiliation in 2022, in 2023 none such case was observed anymore.
  • Germany has also seen a significant drop, from 5 Saudi Arabian HCRs, indicating a German secondary affiliation in 2022 to just 1 case in 2022. 


The results of our study shows that Saudi Arabia experienced the largest drop of Highly Cited Researchers primarily affiliated to them in the past decade and that this will probably reduce the number of Saudi institutions within the Top 200 of the Shanghai Ranking to 1 university.

In the short term, this will move Saudi Arabia further away from its Vision 2030 objective of ensuring that 5 universities are ranked in the Top 200 of international rankings by 2030. This said, we believe that, in the long-term, it will have a positive impact on higher education and research policy not only in the countries and universities that were negatively impacted by the previous gaming of affiliations in Clarivate’s database of Highly Cited Researchers but also on the Saudi Arabian system of higher education and research itself.

The loss of a few places in the Shanghai Rankings will not make Saudi Arabia a less attractive place for top researchers and there have not been big waves of resignations from Saudi Arabian top researchers; the impact is simply virtual on a virtual list. The legitimate ambition of becoming a leading nation in research and higher education should be based on sustainable assets and focused on developing local talent. Targeted talent attraction measures make sense only if they are embedded in a wider long-term strategy.

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