Could Neom U be Saudi Arabia’s next top university?

Experts predict institution in planned megacity could surpass KAUST with backing of all-powerful Mohammed bin Salman

July 6, 2022
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as mentioned in the article
Source: Alamy

A new university at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s planned megacity on the banks of the Red Sea could soon emerge as the country’s premier scientific institution with the backing of its powerful crown prince, experts said.

Billed as the sustainable city of the future and covering an area the size of Belgium, the $500 billion (£411 billion) Neom project is set to boast improbable wonders such as “The Line”, a 177km-long linear city housing 1 million people without conventional cars, and “Oxagon”, an eight-sided floating industrial city – as well as a flagship university, dubbed Neom U.

The institution, which last month appointed a founding president, Andreas Cangellaris, currently provost of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is seeking to become a “pre-eminent knowledge institution”, attracting students from across Saudi Arabia and overseas, and offering on-site and online learning. It will focus initially on computer science, engineering and design, media, art and entertainment, and business.

Christopher Davidson, an expert in Middle Eastern politics and fellow at the European Centre for International Affairs, said the new university would benefit from the patronage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known as MBS – over the Neom project.

“Given Neom’s close association with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman…it is likely to emerge as Saudi Arabia’s premier and best-resourced research institution,” Dr Davidson said of Neom U, adding that, as a key part of the Vision 2030 strategy to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuel extraction and diversify its economy, the university was likely to “be well funded, and heavily promoted, both domestically and internationally”.

Significantly, beyond Professor Cangellaris, many of the key players in the Neom U project are veterans of the development of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), until now the beacon of the transformation of Saudi Arabia’s research sector, boasting a massive $10 billion endowment, a mostly international student cohort and the country’s first mixed-gender campus.

Nadhmi Al-Nasr, chief executive of the entire Neom project, was KAUST’s interim president at its foundation and later served as executive vice-president for administration and finance. Neom’s international steering council for education and research is chaired by Jean-Lou Chameau, the former president of the California Institute of Technology who led KAUST between 2013 and 2017.

Although KAUST is involved in the development of Neom, Dr Davidson predicted that the new city’s university would eventually outshine the older institution.

“Though there will likely be cooperation and collaboration with…KAUST, the latter may eventually fall to the wayside,” he said.

“After all, KAUST was a King Abdullah-era project – with his name still buried in the acronym – and MBS is known to have harboured a strong dislike and distrust of King Abdullah’s sons and senior associates, with the most influential having been targeted by MBS’ anti-corruption campaign.”

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, agreed that Neom U had the potential to join the top tier of global research institutions.

As KAUST shows, if we judge ‘world-class’ in universities by the quality of the infrastructure, and by the quality and quantity of leading faculty and researchers that are hired, which is the most important single element in the world-class university model, the Saudi formula for building world-class universities can work,” Professor Marginson said.

But he noted that, alongside concerns over freedom of expression and gender equality in Saudi Arabia, “questions remain” over other metrics for success.

“How embedded are the high-investment Saudi world-class universities in the Saudi economy and culture? Isolating institutions from society is not a viable strategy in the long term,” Professor Marginson said, adding that universities cut off from their surroundings “create less social and economic value” and were less likely to be sustainable.


Print headline: Could ‘pre-eminent’ Neom U be Saudi Arabia’s next top university?

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Reader's comments (1)

Students will give an arm and a leg to study there