Oasis in the desert

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology pushes many boundaries. Zoë Corbyn visits Saudi Arabia to see how its vision of top-class research in a liberal environment is taking root

November 5, 2009

Taxi drivers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s most Westernised city, like the promise of their kingdom’s newest university. There is pride in the idea that King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), located 80km north of Jeddah, will restore the place of science in the Muslim world, undertake research to fix the country’s problems and help to revitalise a higher education system that turns out graduates so lacking in skills that jobs go to foreigners rather than locals.

The university’s allure drops away, however, with the news that male and female students will mix at KAUST, and women will be free to drive cars and dress as they please on campus. Suddenly the pet project of the country’s (relatively) reform-minded King, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, becomes problematic.

These tensions came to a head last month when a leading cleric from the official religious establishment, silent until now on the project, criticised KAUST’s mixed-sex policy on national television. “Mixing is a great sin and a great evil,” said Sheikh Sa’ad al-Shathry, adding that he wanted the university’s courses of study to be vetted for compatibility with Sharia, or Islamic law.

It is a stark reminder that while KAUST’s policies espouse the hope and dreams of liberal Saudis, this venture challenges some deeply ingrained cultural norms in one of the most conservative societies. Opposition to the project from hardliners surprises no one, and although the cleric was dismissed the next day by royal decree, the country’s powerful religious forces are far from spent.

Christopher Davidson, senior lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, is an expert on higher education in the Gulf. “KAUST is like a little oasis of freedom, an offshore university, where normal rules don’t apply,” he says. “It is a struggle and it is going to cause tension.”

Yet KAUST also creates political questions for the leading higher education institutions from around the world - among them the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London - that have entered into partnerships to help establish this unique venture. How do they defend their involvement in a country in which basic human rights are curtailed, women are repressed and freedom of expression is absent? Just last month, a female Saudi journalist, Rozanna al-Yami, was sentenced to 60 lashes for her involvement in a TV show in which sex was discussed, although the King later waived the sentence.

“Institutions justify their involvement as part of a civilising mission - through education it will make the place better - but the counter-argument is that by adding your name you prolong the lifespan of these regimes by giving them international credibility,” says Davidson.

Sir Roy Anderson, rector of Imperial College, contends that universities are “forces for change”. He echoes the King’s hopes that KAUST’s vision of tolerance will become part of wider Saudi society and have a modernising influence.

Try to locate KAUST on Google Earth and you will not have much luck. This international, graduate-level university, which opened at the end of September after just two intense years of construction, is too new to feature. If you stroll across the Footbridge of Enthusiasm, down Discovery Boulevard and into Creativity Avenue, you get an overwhelming sense that a city from the future has swallowed the little fishing port of Thuwal on the Red Sea. On what was recently desert stands a sprawling campus packed with state-of-the-art research facilities. A 20,000-capacity academic and student village - with everything from mosque to yacht club - shimmers across the harbour. A technology park awaiting spin-out discoveries sits ready in the hot sun.

At the behest of the King, KAUST’s rapid establishment has been overseen by the state oil company, Saudi Aramco. “A pleasant tsunami” is how Nadhmi Al-Nasr describes the transformation. An Aramco employee, he was initially the university’s interim president and is now its interim executive vice-president of finance and administration. (Choon Fong Shih, the former vice-chancellor of the National University of Singapore, is president, and the university is governed by an independent board of trustees.)

The goal is to give the country a research-focused university to rival the world’s best. Financed by what is thought to be a $10 billion (£6.2 billion) endowment (KAUST will not confirm its size), it is part of the grander plan to wrench the economy away from oil, transforming it into one based on knowledge.

KAUST’s aim is to serve as a modern-day version of Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom”, which existed nearly 1,000 years ago in the Islamic golden age. The best international minds, selected purely on merit, are to be put to work on the most pressing scientific problems for the good of Saudi Arabia and humankind. Its strategic research focus, developed with the help of Stanford University and attuned to the country’s future needs and industrial strengths, includes water desalination, solar energy, crops for arid and salty environments and improved petrochemical production.

To that end, top researchers, young rising stars and able masters and doctoral students are being enticed from all over the world to make it happen (see box right). In agreements worth up to $25 million over five years, international academic partners are providing syllabuses, devising equipment wish lists, and helping with recruitment along with undertaking joint research. “KAUST whatever the cost” has been a public slogan; the goal, confides one academic, is to be among the world’s top 20 universities within 15 years.

“Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a university that is really research based,” says Al-Nasr in detailing what he hopes will distinguish KAUST from the rest of the country’s institutions. “Our existing universities are driven by education, meeting the mass needs of high-school graduates, but here this is not the objective. Research will drive education, not the other way around.”

This plan stands in stark contrast to the model being applied elsewhere in the Gulf, where governments build large “education cities” to entice Western universities to set up their own campuses. Although KAUST needs international partners to realise its vision, it has no desire to invite a Western takeover. “KAUST is a Saudi university. It is part of this country, part of this nation, and we will be part of this total chain of higher education,” Al-Nasr says.

KAUST is, however, a new type of institution for the kingdom in more ways than merely its approach to research. Women - who are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia - are free to take the wheel on campus, and they are not obliged to shield hair, veil faces or don the abaya, the traditional all-covering black garment. KAUST is also the first of the country’s universities - public or private - to fully integrate male and female learning, and students may also socialise together. In the standard system, Saudi Arabia’s co-educational institutions are strictly divided into male and female campuses; each sex is taught by academics of the same gender or, where this is not possible, female students follow lectures via closed-circuit television. The sexes do not mix. Even academics almost never see a scholarly peer of the opposite sex.

As might be expected given the cultural environment, the new university’s administration is not minded to talk up its pioneering move. “They are researchers, not undergraduates,” Al-Nasr says of the institution’s students. He acknowledges that KAUST would have difficulty attracting international partners had it stuck with tradition. According to Imperial’s Anderson, if KAUST had not adopted these policies, “It would be extremely difficult to justify (our involvement) to my academic staff in Britain.”

KAUST can break with the norms because, unlike the 33 other universities (24 public and nine private institutions) and numerous specialised colleges that make up Saudi Arabia’s higher education sector, it falls outside the purview of the conservative-controlled Ministry for Higher Education. Under the liberal wing of Saudi Aramco, which is overseen by the Ministry of Petroleum, it has - not by accident - sidestepped the normal rules that govern everything from the separation of students by sex to requirements for religious instruction. The state’s censors also seem to have been reined in: KAUST has its own internet lines, independent of the national network, and it will develop its own policy regarding internet use.

Although the administration is reluctant to talk up KAUST’s radical change, its women are relishing it as an important step in the right direction in a country where schools opened their doors to women only in 1960, universities did not follow suit until 1973 and girls’ education was administered as a separate entity until 2003. Saudi Arabia lags far behind the rest of the region, which has been warming to the idea of mixed education for some time.

Of the roughly 400 students (of an eventual 2,000) who began their studies at KAUST this year, 20 per cent are female. The 70 or so academic appointments made to date (of a planned 0) feature five women: the sole Saudi woman, Iman Roqan from the University of Strathclyde, started last month as an assistant professor of materials science and engineering.

KAUST’s progressive policy “is really very significant”, says Niveen Khashab, a Lebanese-born assistant professor of chemical and environmental sciences and engineering, who drives from her home to work at the university.

Roqan notes how proud she is to be a part of KAUST, though she stresses that she will be wearing her abaya and headscarf irrespective of its liberal policies. “I am a Muslim girl and I feel more comfortable.”

Jana Yamani and her friend Miasser Ghamdi are two Saudi students undertaking their masters, in applied maths and computer science respectively. The pair, also disinclined to remove their black garb, observe that Yamani did her undergraduate degree in the US, while Ghamdi studied locally at Effat University. “It is a big change for Saudi Arabia. It is a step toward Westernising. It means we are overcoming a lot of obstacles,” Yamani asserts.

Ghamdi notes that her parents - “like most Saudi families” - were opposed to her attending the university, but she recently married and her “very supportive” husband, who works in Jeddah, lives with her on campus. She was sent on a pre-masters course in the UK to help her prepare for KAUST. “They said it is to improve our English, but really it is to help us integrate and adapt (to mixed classes).”

The point for many is that KAUST’s policies are a jump but, it is hoped, not so dramatic that they create too much resistance and resentment in wider society. According to Durham’s Davidson: “You can’t change these things overnight (in Saudi Arabia) and so there is an argument that things like KAUST, small pilot projects that are away from the general public, are the right way to do it. The danger is that you could just be creating a little bubble that will be burst or breed resentment outside the walls. How KAUST will be tolerated by the general public over the next few years will be the test. I am optimistic, but you can’t be sure it will be well received.”

But while KAUST’s policies are unprecedented, there are individuals in Saudi Arabia’s other universities who are chipping away at the boundaries to try to modernise the sector.

Effat University is a small, private, non-profit all-women’s institution in Jeddah. It prides itself on its high educational standards: 18 of its graduates gained a place at KAUST this year, and 15 are set to attend next year.

As a private institution, Effat does not have to follow every ministry rule, so it has tried to be as progressive as possible within the system. It recruits international lecturers and students to ensure the kind of mixing widely held to be the key to cultivating tolerance and understanding, and it runs the country’s only courses in architecture and engineering for women.

Significantly, students may be taught face to face by male lecturers in a special block cordoned off from the rest of the campus. Abayas (not required elsewhere on campus because there are no men) must be worn. The institution also runs non-degree professional development programmes where men and women train together.

Ghazi Binzagr, a Jeddah businessman, is a member of Effat’s advisory board. “You take every opportunity available to make a step that is accepted by society without a backlash. It allows an opportunity to demonstrate (that it can be done) and make the culture more comfortable. Hopefully, in the future, it prepares people to move further.”

The institution’s dean, Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, says she favours mixed classes as a way of enriching learning. She would happily adopt KAUST’s model if she were allowed. “But the rules first have to change if we want to have male and female students in one place.”

On the day after KAUST’s September inauguration, the university hosted a workshop for female academics from around the country. Among those attending were Yamani and Ghamdi, who discussed the challenges for female scientists in the kingdom.

One speaker at the workshop was Samira Islam (see box page 34), a professor of pharmacology at King Abdulaziz University. She has been a role model for women, instrumental in securing formal university education for Saudi women.

She began her address with a rallying cry: by royal decree Saudi women are allowed to study anything they like, public higher education is free (indeed, students are paid to attend) and more women than men take degrees. Last year, about 62 per cent of graduates, or roughly 54,000, were female.

But her account then turned grim. Saudi women suffer from three gender biases, she observed. Not only do they face the glass ceiling familiar the world over, but the country’s culture is a repressive one where men don’t like women to succeed and a draconian misinterpretation of Islamic law manifestly privileges men.

While arguments may rage about mixed classes, abayas and driving, there are more pressing issues, she said.

“Graciously from Allah, the Government is generous. They give us enough places and there is enough space to create qualified women, so I am not hungry to go and sit with the boys,” she explained later, adding that she has studied in other countries in mixed classes and does not see that they give better support.

The “more traumatic impacts on women”, Islam said, are the social and cultural barriers to entering science, which mean that the overwhelming majority of female students study arts, humanities or education. When women graduate, their only real prospects are low-level administration or teaching jobs.

Within the academy, men win almost all the research grants; career prospects for women are desperately poor; and a substantial workload problem besets female academics who, far fewer in number, must proportionately cover far more lectures to teach the burgeoning numbers of women students.

What bothers Islam most is the lack of research funding: she has had no choice but to fund her laboratory out of her own pocket, and her only hope is for international collaborative partnerships. “If I - who have been blocked before and found solutions - cannot tolerate this, what about the young women who will come after me and have never before had to struggle?” she asks. KAUST should try much harder to build partnerships with local researchers, especially female academics, she argues - “but they don’t ask people like us”.

One of the burdens that weighs heavy on KAUST is the need to improve the quality of Saudi higher education, whose present low standard is reflected in the fact that many of its graduates, female and male, are uncompetitive in the private jobs market. Cash is being poured into the national education system, with the number of undergraduates growing and plans for new institutions developing apace - another KAUST-sized project is to provide a new campus to accommodate the all-female Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, doubling its capacity from 20,000 to 40,000 - but until recently the quality of university education had received scant attention. It is now a source of much debate in a country where the unemployment rate tops 15 per cent.

“If you compare today with ten years ago, nobody really thought about the quality of higher education (in Saudi Arabia),” says Effat’s Al-Lail. “Now it really is the talk of the town. Every institution - both public and private - is looking at how to institutionalise it. But while the concept is here, it is not implemented and it is not institutionalised.”

Unsurprisingly, Western degrees carry significant prestige. The country’s middle classes have long been sending their children to US and British institutions, not only to give them a high-quality education but also to allow them the opportunity to mix with others. Keener than ever to build a workforce for the future, the King’s scholarship programme has funded 70,000 university places overseas since 2007.

There appears to be no one particular cause of the quality problems afflicting Saudi higher education. There are, instead, a number of ills, which include a mismatch in demand and supply, a curriculum infused with religious teaching, a lack of meritocracy and the country’s inability to build up a strong national cadre of academics.

“The brain drain of people who go and do their studies in the West - regardless of how much money is poured into building new universities in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states - means that when students decide to go into academia, they don’t necessarily go back home,” Davidson says.

A former deputy minister for culture within the old Ministry of Education agrees to speak on the condition of anonymity. He studied at Harvard University, and he has a strong vision for education in his country. He expresses sadness at the decline of higher education in the kingdom, which he describes as having “fizzled out into a bureaucratic mess”. Private employers are not accepting the “garbage that comes out”, he adds, so jobs go to foreigners rather than Saudis, which breeds resentment. “They cry out but they are ill-prepared to do the jobs - and it is not their fault, but the fault of the system.

“It is good old nepotism,” the former deputy minister continues, noting that the low emphasis on research means the quality of the academic staff deteriorates over time. Nor is there much academic freedom, he believes. “All of us (who have) been taught in the West know that a professor is a sovereign, a mind-shaper … but here, this is not the case.”

He recalls the woeful tale of the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), a top institution by regional standards but with no real place on the world stage. Like KAUST, it was founded outside the system, incorporated in the early 1960s as the College of Petroleum and Minerals. “It was a skills- and standard-setting institution whose graduates were headhunted,” he says. But in the mid-1980s it was taken under the wing of the Ministry of Education. High-calibre teaching staff left or retired, a slump in oil prices halted hiring, nepotism and radical Islam took hold, all of which led to a fall in standards. The former deputy minister sees KAUST as another, albeit “more brilliant”, attempt at creating KFUPM, and he hopes its administration will learn from the past.

Davidson concurs on the last point, noting that the whole region has a history of building shiny new universities rather than trying to fix its failing ones.

One problem to be addressed is teaching, according to Aljawhara Alsanat, a freelance higher education consultant and former executive director of the continuing education programme at Dar Al-Hekma College, a private higher education institution in Jeddah. She is well placed to judge, as she has spent 11 years in the US and holds a doctorate and various masters degrees in education.

Traditional Saudi methods of teaching value rote learning rather than critical thinking or discussion, Alsanat says, and until you change that, all the millions on new programmes won’t help. “We learn to copy … Students have to write it exactly like it is in the book, not share an opinion. We desperately need new methods of teaching. We are not producing graduates that industry is looking for, and you can’t change it without changing the philosophy.”

While it is less prevalent in the formal curriculum than before, there is a core requirement for Islamic study in courses run under the ministry’s purview. It is a small amount, notes Al-Lail: of a four-year degree requiring 138 credit points, only eight would be for religious studies. She likens it to requirements in the West that students taking science degrees include a small humanities component in their study.

The problem with religion, as she sees it, is that lecturers in the public system stray outside their remits, turning their position as a professor into one of a preacher. “Dr X goes to his class and instead of lecturing about physics or chemistry he will change the whole lecture to Islam. This is the person, not the system, but in public universities it is a huge number of people and you cannot control it.”

For Davidson, however, the problem is that just about every aspect of learning is skewed by religion. Art and design won’t examine classical paintings that feature nudity; literature in which there are sexual references will be avoided; and evolution will be taught under a religious umbrella, all of which contributes to the problem of underskilled graduates.

So can KAUST make a difference? One measure of success will be the level of demand for KAUST graduates and the work and positions they gain, says Al-Nasr. Yet, given that in its inaugural year only 15 per cent of the students are Saudi nationals, it is difficult to see it making a real impact.

Instead, the hope is that KAUST will act as a role model to the country’s other institutions. “The fact that they take their intakes from us shows that we are producing good graduates,” explains Effat’s Al-Lail. “It is an encouraging, motivating vehicle for the rest of higher education.” People will look up to it and aspire to emulate it, she says.

The former deputy minister adds, with optimism, “(KAUST) is not an isolated outpost by virtue of the fact that other institutions are going to look up to it … It is a role model for a more meritorious system.”

Effat’s young communications manager, Noor Balfaqeeh, sees KAUST as the university of her children: “We seek quality education from overseas at the moment, but to see it offered here is my hope, my dream.”

The ability of KAUST to succeed on a world stage and to live up to its people’s aspirations remains to be seen. Whether or not it will help solve the country’s and the world’s most pressing research problems, reduce the cost of desalination (some think this should be the test of its success), move the country towards greater liberalism or help revitalise its education system, it is simply too early to tell.

The world is watching too, for KAUST is also an experiment in determining whether academic greatness can be simply purchased or if the creation of a top institution involves intangible elements that money cannot buy.

Meanwhile, the political shadow hanging over both Saudi Arabia and KAUST is the question of the ageing King’s successor. The possibility that it could be Prince Nayef, the long-serving Interior Minister who holds views far closer to the religious establishment than the King, is the modernisers’ greatest fear.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not KAUST succeeds may be beside the point. The fact that it is a move towards a more liberal and open climate and an investment in the power of education to change society is, arguably, substantial enough that it deserves the support of the international community.

Salary high, throat dry

Imagine packing up your lab and moving to an ultra-conservative country without a research reputation, to an institution that is yet to make its mark.

How much would it take to entice you? For the academics and technical staff who are being brought in from all over the world, their time will certainly be a lucrative, if dry, one.

KAUST’s financial package is thought to be worth two to three times what its employees could make in the West. Salaries for assistant professors are said to start at $100,000 (£62,000), but can rise to $200,000 a year (tax free, of course, in a state where income tax does not exist) and extra benefits include a comfortable house in the purpose-built academic village.

Students are selected competitively and receive annual scholarships of $25,000 for a masters or $35,000 for a doctorate, along with their accommodation.

While few British academics have yet made a move to KAUST, Fabrizio Bisetti, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who was born in Italy and completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, has opted to go.

The biggest draw, he says, is not the salary, but the “exceptional” funding for research and its duration. “The salary makes you think,” he adds, but it is not the deal clincher.

Another academic to make the move from the US is David Keyes, a professor of applied mathematics from Columbia University. He has taken leave to be the inaugural dean of KAUST’s division of mathematical and computer sciences and engineering.

As he sees it, the start-from-scratch institution has a rare opportunity to ensure that what develops is dogged neither by bureaucratic management nor an ethos antithetical to interdisciplinary research, as can be the case in the US.

He won’t reveal his salary, other than to say that it is “designed to be enough to pull you away … They can pay what they need to dislodge someone from Stanford (where professorial salaries are about $250,000) and the overseas bonus is very good. But they don’t have any beer here, you know.”

The women’s champion: Samira Islam

There is arguably no one who has done as much to lead the way for women in the Saudi Arabian academy as Samira Islam.

She is professor of pharmacology at King Abdulaziz University (KAAU), a public institution founded in 1967, and head of the drug-monitoring unit at its King Fahd Medical Research Centre. Islam was the first Saudi woman to earn a PhD (via study in Egypt) and to become a professor (she was the first full professor in pharmacology at any Saudi institution), and she has with a string of international publications to her name.

To give others a better chance to succeed, she has also been instrumental in introducing formal university education for women.

She arrived at KAAU in 1971 fresh from her studies. She volunteered to teach female students, an offer that was accepted, the only hitch being that there were no students because women could not attend the university in person. The only way a woman could get a degree from a Saudi university in the early 1970s was via distance education.

So Islam began to offer night classes “after the boys had left” and found professional women to help provide tuition to the grateful students, most of whom were studying education.

Having made the classes a success and gained a formal appointment as an academic, she decided to try to push the boundaries again. She approached the new vice-chancellor and asked if the university would consider allowing the women to attend in the day.

“(The vice-chancellor) said, ‘Everybody will kill you; it is against traditions’,” Islam recalls. “But I was confident that I was not asking for something wrong or not needed or useful. So I said, ‘Give me a chance.’ And he said, ‘OK, if you convince the parents, the students and the faculty deans, then come to me’.”

After surveying female students and their parents and speaking with the staff, in 1973, KAAU and King Saud University in Riyadh both opened their doors to women, creating separate sections for them.

“It was the first time they were allowed to enter university,” Islam says proudly.

She flew the flag for women again in 1975 when KAAU’s medical school opened. Against the norm and unheard of in a Saudi public higher education institution, she insisted that women start in the medical programme at the same time as men and receive their lectures and clinical classes face to face, from male professors if no woman was available.

The policies she helped push through served as the model for Effat University, a small, private, all-women’s institution in Jeddah, of which Islam was founder.

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