eye to the future, Saudi Arabia launches 'world class' research university
By: TAREK EL-TABLAWY
09/22/09 4:30 PM EDT
— Saudi Arabia has dug into its oil-fueled coffers to set up a new research
university, a multibillion dollar coed venture built on the promise of
scientific freedom in a region where a conservative interpretation of Islam
has often been blamed for stifling innovation.
King Abdullah Science and Technology University — complete with
state-of-the-art labs, the world's 14th fastest supercomputer and one of the
biggest endowments worldwide — is poised to officially open its doors
Wednesday on a sprawling campus nestled along the Red Sea coast about 80
kilometers (50 miles) north of the commercial center of Jeddah.
officials have envisaged the postgraduate institution as a key part of the
kingdom's plans to transform itself into a global scientific hub — the latest
effort in the oil-rich Gulf region to diversify its economic base.
KAUST, whether its founders intend it or not, has the potential to represent
one of the clearest fault lines in a battle between conservatives and
modernizers in the kingdom.
Arabia is the most religiously strict country in the Middle East with total
segregation of the sexes and practices Wahhabi Islam — a byword for
conservatism around the region. But the new university will not require women
to wear veils or cover their faces, and they will be able to mix freely with
will also be allowed to drive, a taboo in a country where women must
literally take a back seat to their male drivers.
KAUST's inauguration, "we see the beginning of a community that is
unique" in Saudi Arabia, the university's president, Choon Fong Shih
told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday.
recruit the very best in the world .... and we give them the freedom to
pursue their scientific interests," said Shih, a mechanical engineer by
training who headed the National University of Singapore for nine years.
it takes decades to develop world class institutions like what KAUST hopes to
become, the university's breakneck inception in many ways reflects Saudi
Arabia's rise to wealth and power in the global political and economic arena.
inaugural ceremony is to be headed by its namesake, the Saudi monarch, as
well as several world leaders, dignitaries and officials who will stand on
what three years ago was just a sweeping acreage of sand, but is now a 36
square kilometer (13.9 square mile) campus with its beach on the Red Sea.
a region where Internet access can often be lackluster, KAUSTS boasts
Shaheen, a 222 teraflops supercomputer which officials says is the fastest in
the Middle East and 14th fastest in the world. The computer is named after
the Arab Peregrine falcon, believed to be the fastest animal on earth.
also boasts a fully immersive, six-sided virtual reality facility called
CORNEA that officials say, for example, can allow researchers to visualize
earthquakes on a planetary scale.
the other equipment and facilities are 10 advanced nuclear magnetic resonance
spectrometers, a coastal and marine resources laboratory and bioengineering
facilities with labs needs to study cell molecules for DNA sequencing.
English curriculum is focused on the sciences, with masters and doctoral
degrees offered in nine fields including computer science, bioscience and
various engineering specialties. The university is also focused on
collaborative work with the private sector, as well as other research
has enrolled 817 students representing 61 different countries, of whom 314
begin classes this month while the rest are scheduled to enroll in the
beginning of 2010. The aim is to expand to 2,000 students within eight to 10
that total, 15 percent are Saudi, say university officials.
research institutions, cash is king, and KAUST, thanks to Saudi's oil wealth,
has tossed generous salary packages to prospective hires from around the
world, an offer made more tempting by a multibillion dollar endowment that
Shih says is "one of the biggest in the world."
71 faculty members include 14 from the U.S., seven from Germany and six from
did not provide a specific figure, but the funding allows all the students to
receive full scholarships covering their tuition plus a stipend.
says without that aid, students would have to pay about $60,000 to $70,000
university is being launched at a time when the OPEC powerhouse has been
upping its push to focus on education and development programs aimed at
boosting economic growth.
officials have said they are committed to spending $400 billion over the next
five years on various development and infrastructure projects, and the
kingdom set a 2009 budget that ran a deficit for the first time in years
specifically to sustain spending on such ventures.
more than a projected research juggernaut in a region where other oil-rich
nations are also embracing similar initiatives — albeit on a much smaller
scale — KAUST may indirectly challenge the brand of conservatism that critics
say has stifled progress in the Muslim world.
do not restrict how they wish to work among themselves," Shih said,
referring to whether men and women can freely intermingle on campus.
"It's a research environment .... driven by scientific agenda."
many ways, the campus is similar to other Western-style compounds in Saudi
where residents are often allowed more flexibility in embracing liberal
Western values shunned outside the confines of their community in the
the university also could also be seen as a return to Islam's golden age — an
era centuries ago when Muslim scholars took up the mantle of the Greeks and
were pioneers in the fields of medicine, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy,
tolerant and inquiring period was snuffed out under pressure from invasions
by Crusaders, Mongols and nomadic desert hordes in the Middle Ages and was
replaced by an age where faith superseded reason amid unstable times.
the modern era, bureaucratic bungling, a lack funds, and a general stifling
of freedoms has left much of the Arab Middle East in a state of academic and
say KAUST's embrace of scientific freedom marks Saudi Arabia's determination
to not be left behind as technology increasingly drives global development.
a way, we are paving the way," said Shih, referring to the university's
focus on pure science. But if "KAUST is leading the way, it has to meet
global standards of excellence, otherwise how else can we be a global