In light of globalization and rapid economic changes, innovation became a necessity for all organizations. Innovation differs from one type of organization to another, and is considered more complex in the case of universities. This paper deals with innovation in Saudi universities, and searches to analyze its main features based on a number of pillars such as the quality of education, innovation in educational programs and teaching methods, innovation in applied research related to the industry, innovation in developing partnerships and networks, social innovation and innovation in achieving the university’s financial sustainability. Results show that despite the increasing development of higher education, the reality of innovation in Saudi universities does not match the potential of the country. In general, the pace is low and some constraints persist. It appears that the huge amounts of financial resources allocated to the higher education sector are not sufficient to improve innovation. In effect, qualitative aspects remain influential. © 2019, © 2019 The Author(s). This open access article is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) 4.0 license.