Saudi student Abdul-Azeem Fakhr came to New Zealand to study because he could not get a visa for the United States.

Mr Fakhr claimed the Americans would not grant him a visa because the supporting documents he submitted for his visa application showed he had been known by three different names.

"I was given one name at birth, but my mother changed it when we had to run away from my abusive father," he said.

"But I did not like the name my mother gave me, so I chose the one which I am using now."


Mr Fakhr said New Zealand is becoming a popular study destination for students from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations because it was "more friendly than America or Australia" and "easier to get a visa".

In 2002, there were just 67 Saudi students studying in New Zealand. Now, there are about 7000, according to estimates made by the Minister of Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce.

According to Immigration New Zealand, 2654 students visas were issued to Saudi nationals last year - but many students, like Mr Fakhr, who is taking a short course to become an English teacher, do not require a student visa.

In percentage terms, students from Saudi Arabia saw the largest increase last year - up 431, or 19 per cent from the previous year, ahead of India's 17 per cent and China's 11 per cent.

Changes had recently been made to immigration policy to allow holders of temporary visas who wished to take short courses of no more than three months to do so without applying for a student visa.

"For visa-free nationals, such as Saudi Arabians, if they intend to study in New Zealand while on visitor visas, they need to declare it on their arrival card," an Immigration spokeswoman said.

"The checks will not be the same as those for student visa applicants as the primary reason for their travel is for tourism purposes."

The agency said it did not know how many of those on student visas here had been denied visas to study elsewhere.


Zain Ali, University of Auckland's head of Islamic research, said many Saudi students chose to study in New Zealand because it was perceived to be "more Muslim-friendly".

"The environment in New Zealand is seen to be more accommodating to students from the Middle East, and there's a lot of halal food and there isn't an issue with finding halal homestays as there are many Muslim families here," Mr Ali said.

Last week, Mr Joyce was in Riyadh promoting New Zealand as a study destination to students in the Gulf.

Speaking at an exhibition and conference for higher education, the minister said international education was important to New Zealand because these students formed lifelong linkages that provide cultural understanding and economic opportunities.

"Saudi students who are in New Zealand today will carry forward a lifelong understanding and affection for our country. They will be ambassadors for New Zealand," Mr Joyce said.

The international education sector is worth $2.3 billion to the economy, but the Government's goal is to double that to $5 billion.


* Saudi Arabia 2654 (up 19 per cent)
* India 10,435 (up 17 per cent)
* China 16,620 (up 11 per cent)
Source: Immigration New Zealand.