Talking leadership 17: Tony Chan on working in Saudi Arabia

The KAUST president discusses the treatment of women and academic freedom

三月 15, 2022
Tony Chan speaks at the World Academic Summit
Tony Chan at the THE World Academic Summit

Sporting a baseball cap and an easy smile, Tony Chan is warm and engaging. His cosmopolitan ease might be seen as being at odds with life in Saudi Arabia, where religious conservatism remains a dominant force.

The president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a private research institution based north of Jeddah, focuses relentlessly on the opportunities he sees in the kingdom, rather than the inevitable questions about human rights or restrictions within Saudi society.

Born in Hong Kong, Chan moved to the US as a teenager and studied engineering at the California Institute of Technology, then computer science at Stanford University. Most of his academic career was spent in the US, including at Yale University and the University of California, Los Angeles, before he returned to Hong Kong in 2009 to take up the presidency of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In 2018, he headed west to KAUST, having already served on its board.

Chan is enthusiastic about the future of the kingdom and higher education within it. He extols the virtues of Vision 2030, the national strategy introduced by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince known colloquially as “MBS”. “He really wants to reform Saudi Arabia in multiple aspects. One is to diversify the economy beyond oil. So how do you do it? Well, you need to attract investment [in] science and technology and innovation.”

Education, too, is being overhauled. “Part of Vision 2030 is to look at the human capital pipeline,” Chan says. “The raw talent is there. The Arabs, the Saudis, you know, are just as smart as any other race or ethnic group. It depends on a nurturing environment.”

The whole country is embracing the vision, Chan says. MBS has spoken and the people are listening. “It’s hard to explain it, the political system here: it comes from the top and everybody, every corner of society, embraces it.”

Although it was founded in 2009, seven years before Vision 2030 was published, KAUST is seen as part of the kingdom’s modernisation agenda. A postgraduate-only institution, it was the brainchild of King Abdullah and endowed with a whopping $10 billion (£6.1 billion) fund. Most students are international, and the university was the first in Saudi Arabia to offer a mixed-gender campus.

Women’s status ‘transformed’

King Abdullah wanted to “resurrect this so-called House of Wisdom from 1,000 years ago, when the Islamic or Arabic world was the centre of global civilisation”, Chan says. “He wanted to have a place to invite the best minds from around the world to come.”

Despite some modernising reforms in recent years, there are still many restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia. Under the kingdom’s guardianship system, women are considered to be legal minors, giving their male guardians authority over their decisions.

Chan’s view on the status of women in the kingdom is that it has “been transformed”.

“You heard [that] women can drive? Well, that was a big deal. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “If you came to Saudi Arabia to the airport, let’s say in Riyadh or Jeddah, two or three years ago, all the people you meet, you know the customs people, the people who will check your passport, they were all men. Now they’re all female. All. And it happened in a blink of an eye.”

And what about more senior positions? Women make up 6.8 per cent of managerial roles in Saudi Arabia, one of the lowest rates in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest gender gap report.

Chan says this is changing: he is seeing more senior women at events such as FII, the Future Investment Initiative known as “Davos in the Desert”. Within higher education specifically, the universities that are segregated into male and female campuses have women leading the female sections, and the women-only universities are headed by women, he says.

What does Chan think about this segregation on other Saudi campuses? He swerves the question. “You know, I went through this myself in my high school. I went to an all-boys school, and my sister went to an all-girls school.”

But separating children is different from separating adults, isn’t it? I ask. “I agree,” he says. This is where KAUST has made a difference, he explains, saying that it attracts a lot of women because it provides them with some freedom, “whereas, you know, maybe if they stay with the family influence, they still want to be more conservative”.

While it affords more freedom than most, KAUST still reflects the society in which it is based, and as such it does require students to dress modestly. It has inductions for new students: “We tell them a little bit about the culture – what to do, what not to do, you know, that kind of thing.”

Classes are mixed gender, and they have female faculty, including Saudi women, Chan says. “The number is still small because we don’t have a quota system. We hire the best.”

Last year, a royal decree announced that women no longer had to wear abayas, the long robes worn by Muslim women. But people must still dress modestly, Chan says. “You don’t wear this spaghetti string, bikinis or something like that walking around!” he laughs.

Chan’s wife moved with him to Saudi Arabia. When I ask how she has found it, he says he doesn’t want to answer on her behalf. “You’d have to ask her, but she has said in public, she’s surprisingly adapted to it quite easily.”

Despite no longer being obliged to wear abayas, his wife has stuck to wearing them, Chan says. “It’s functional for one thing. Because when you go into a mall, its air conditioning sometimes can be quite cold; you put on this thing, it helps. And second, it’s easy to blend in.”

Does that mean that people react differently to her when she’s not wearing it? “No, no. Six, seven, eight years ago, you probably heard about religious police in the kingdom where if you are not behaving properly – never mind women, men if you wear shorts in public, that’s a no-no – but now there’s nothing like that. I have not seen a single religious policeman.”

Freedom of speech

I wonder if Chan views some of the less progressive aspects of Saudi culture as something he can help to influence or change. He offers an answer to a different question.

“I knew what KAUST was about, and I really liked the vision…I really think that there’s a chance for me to do something because KAUST is very well resourced,” he replies.

“And we’re in a country that is already poised to make big changes,” he continues, referring with excitement to Neom, MBS’ nascent megacity, which is now under construction and will be the size of Belgium.

Neom’s website describes it as the “first cognitive and smart city” and features crisp footage of dune buggies skidding through the desert, deep azure waters and athletes skiing up majestic snow-covered mountains through a snowstorm and into the sky.

KAUST is partnering with Neom to build the world’s largest coral garden. The university will work on technology to enhance coral reef restoration as part of Neom’s commitment to protect 95 per cent of nature within the city and to accelerate conservation.

“To me as a scientist, as a university leader, this is a tremendous platform,” Chan says.

Neom has itself been subject to controversy for attempting to displace at least 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe without offering any information about where they will live in the future.

When I ask Chan about this, he repeats his praises of the future city, outlining the ski resort they will build, the rapid transport system and the inbuilt sustainability.

Pressed on the topic of the people losing their homes, Chan says: “You know, this happens in all societies in all countries. You have some national project, you have to do that…expand Heathrow, high-speed rail [for example].”

Asked whether he feels able to speak freely while living in Saudi Arabia, he insists that he is. “My view is this: you have to understand you’re a guest. I’m a guest in this country even though I work here. I respect the local culture. So I don’t go out of my way to say something that I know will be offensive. Culturally, I don’t mean politically.”

He adds: “But otherwise, I can say anything I want. We can talk about everything. We can even talk about the future of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel, for example.”

Does he feel that he can discuss issues such as the treatment of women? “I talk [about this] with my colleagues all the time,” he says. “I say, ‘We need to recruit more. Haven’t you noticed when you come into the airport, all the people you meet are female and so much more pleasant in terms of how they deal with you?’”

Chan adds that there is a “certain image of the kingdom” outside Saudi Arabia, but that image changes, he says, when people visit the country and see the place for themselves.

On the topic of academic freedom in Saudi Arabia, Chan initially says it’s not an issue at KAUST because KAUST is a science- and technology-focused institution. When I say that the issue of academic freedom could still come up, he agrees and offers an example: “Saudi Arabia is still the world’s largest reserve and producer of oil. So you would think that in a country like that, with the economy based on that, that you are supposed to do research only on oil, but not on renewables, right? No, far from it.”

Renewable energy is part of MBS’ Vision 2030, but Chan says research on it was being done at KAUST before the government backed renewables.

Chan is proud of his students who are active in pushing for measures to protect the environment: “There’s a lot of student activism in things like sustainability. We have a student group on sustainability; they do all kinds of initiatives.”

When he asks young people for their views on the changes in Saudi Arabia: “They’re so enthusiastic. They’re very optimistic about the future. They all think the country is going the right way.”

Surveys have revealed that young Saudis are increasingly interested in entrepreneurialism, so KAUST is now taking various approaches to facilitating this for its students.

An enthusiastic ‘pioneer’

When Chan joined KAUST in 2018, he knew little about the region. In his late sixties at the time, he could have retired, but he thought: “I only live once, I’m an international person. I really want to know what Islam is like.”

Chan says his time at KAUST has shaped him; he “derive[s] energy” from the university and feels like “a pioneer”. He made the decision to join because he likes to try new things. “I look for opportunities for me to grow.”

When I ask where that pioneering growth-mindset comes from, he becomes animated as he credits the US. “[In] America, as it was, anything is feasible,” he says. “The American dream, if you’re good, if you have ideas, you’ll find acceptance of that. You’ll find a way to achieve.” He describes his “academic DNA” as American.

“I owe a lot to the US provided me with education and opportunity. But also it opened my eyes as a person. And you can realise that. I can imagine in some other country, you know, maybe you feel more constrained.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.



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Reader's comments (1)

There are still significant Christian minorities in several Middle-eastern countries. It's unfortunate that they don't have a state somewhere in the region, despite the toleration often granted to them under Islam.