Saudi Arabia begins putting minds to challenges of future

As classes start at Western-style research institute, questions hang over UK partners, writes Zoë Corbyn

September 24, 2009

It may be better known for oil exports and strict conservatism, but this week Saudi Arabia reached a milestone on its quest to become renowned for its research with the launch of its first Western-style science and technology university.

Backed by a multibillion-dollar endowment, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), situated near Jeddah, is the centrepiece of the country's long-term goal to become a knowledge-based economy.

A pet project of the country's King, the postgraduate and co-educational institution will focus on research, with its founders promising that KAUST will be merit-based and the "most independent institution in the world".

"(I wish) to rekindle and spread the great and noble virtue of learning that marked the Arab and Muslim worlds in earlier times," reads the opening message from King Abdullah in the university's launch brochure.

"It is my desire that this new university becomes one of the world's great institutions of research ... that it fosters, on the basis of merit and excellence, collaboration and cooperation with other great research universities and the private sector."

KAUST also represents the first serious foray into the Middle East for many of the UK's top research universities.

Among its academic partners are Imperial College London, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

Until now, these elite institutions have largely remained spectators in the scramble to capitalise on the Gulf states' growing and highly lucrative higher education market.

Academic-excellence alliance

The Imperial-KAUST partnership, one of the Saudi Arabian institution's five "academic-excellence alliances", is worth $25 million (£15.2 million) over five years.

Imperial's department of materials will provide a masters syllabus for KAUST students in materials science and chemical engineering, as well as undertaking collaborative research with KAUST academics. It will identify scientific equipment that the Saudi university needs, and make recommendations when it comes to the selection of staff.

Neil Alford, chair in materials at Imperial and the department's designated academic champion for its dealings with KAUST, said of the partnership: "It is an opportunity to develop ties with the region and be at the inception of something that has the potential to make a huge difference in terms of scientific and cultural change."

Earlier this month, about 375 students began studies at the university in Thuwal, about 80km north of Jeddah. Masters and doctorates offered in 11 scientific subjects are taught by a faculty of more than 60 scholars.

Chris Davidson, senior lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and an expert on higher education in the Gulf, described the institution as a "very significant step" for Saudi Arabia. "It is trying to play catch-up with the other big universities that have opened elsewhere in the region," he said.

He added that the country was striving to meet the challenge of finding work for Saudis who lack the qualifications needed to support the private-sector ventures springing up in the Gulf. "It has to drag its higher education sector into the 21st century and kick-start research and development ... It needs to produce graduates who will go into R&D and knowledge-economy activities."

Dr Davidson stressed that although there are other universities in Saudi Arabia, KAUST is unique in that it has an agenda to foster international and public-private collaborations.

It is the only higher education institute not to fall under the purview of the Ministry of Higher Education, he added. KAUST is independent and has its own board of trustees. It was developed by Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, which is overseen by the Ministry of Petroleum.

However, justifying doing business with Saudi Arabia - considered by many to be one of the world's most oppressive regimes - is likely to remain a problem for Western institutions that want to get involved with KAUST, Dr Davidson said.

"The obvious question is why a venerable British institution - which should support freedom of speech - should do business with Saudi Arabia. That is a question the British public will want answered, too."

New paradigm

Choon Fong Shih, president of KAUST, told Times Higher Education that the university represents a "new paradigm" and is at the forefront of "leveraging on the interconnectedness of science, engineering and innovation".

He said that conceived and built from scratch, KAUST was "unencumbered by legacies and traditional structures. In taking on the challenges of the 21st century, our researchers will collaborate across disciplines, universities, corporations and continents."

Male and female students will attend classes together, and the best academics, regardless of their sex, will be recruited to conduct research, a KAUST spokesman said.

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