A few weeks ago I was taken to task by a reader who complained about my enthusiasm for the academic potential of the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), which had its inauguration this week.
The reader implied that I was naïve to believe that KAUST will benefit any Saudis, noting that KAUST is nothing more than a “$10 billion write-off.”
The reader writes: “KAUST barely brings any benefit to the local population. It has been created as a gated microcosm whereby foreign intellectuals and scholars from around the world come, live in their own little worlds whereby they need not have any interaction with the local population, and enlighten each other at the expense of King Abdullah's $10 billion endowment … and will then conveniently leave after benefiting from years of tax-free income.”
I think the observer fails to grasp simple economics. But I will get to that in a moment.
The reader continues with a more valid point: “What … actually (will) be a landmark project would be a complete overhaul of the education system, which is failing spectacularly at nurturing homegrown Saudi talent.”
The fact is that KAUST is likely to be a boon for local job market if the global economy recovers from the disasters of 2008. As for the quality of the Saudi lower educational system, I couldn’t agree more.
But KAUST is the test case as to whether its successes can be applied to entire the Saudi education system in the future. But let’s address the economic impact first.
KAUST is situated on a 24-acre campus in Thuwal, about 50 miles north of Jeddah. Three residential districts for men and women include more than 3,000 housing units for faculty, students and their families numbering upwards of 5,000 and more. Yes, the campus will be self-contained with markets, theater, a bowling alley, bank and other support services.
There is a danger that KAUST faculty and students will live in their own little bubble. There are plenty of examples in Saudi Arabia with self-contained residential compounds where many Westerners remain behind compound walls. But I think it’s unlikely since Jeddah is only a short distance away from the campus.
But more importantly is that that the campus’ residential and commercial project is expected to create 500,000 jobs by the time it’s completed in 2016, according to KAUST officials. The nearby Knowledge Economic City is expected to create 20,000 jobs in the Madinah providence by 2014. And this does not include the benefits the region will reap with the completion of the proposed railway that will link the Red Seat with the Arabian Gulf.
It’s a mistake to believe that KAUST’s success or failure is not linked to the current Saudi education system. Certainly on an international level, Saudi Arabia’s lower education system has failed its students with too much emphasis placed on non-academic curriculum.
The standards of higher Saudi education are less of an issue, although. Western universities continue to accept Saudi university degree holders in great numbers for postgraduate work, so we can’t call the system a failure.
The role I hope KAUST will play in developing better higher academic standards is the international makeup of its faculty and students. According to KAUST, the current faculty of 71 professors is 14 percent American, 7 percent German, 6 percent Canadian and 6 percent Chinese.
The university provost is Dr. Brian Moran, an American who served as chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Northwestern University. KAUST’s president is Choon Fong Shih, who was president and vice-chancellor of National University of Singapore.
The student population, which numbers only about 400 now, is 15 percent Saudi, 14 percent Chinese, 11 percent Mexican and 8 percent American. The rest of the students come form nearly 60 other countries. Students, particularly Saudis, thrive in an international environment and their exposure to non-Saudi students will go a long
way to breaking down barriers between the Arab world, the West and developing countries.
While I sound like an optimist I am not kidding myself of the obstacles ahead. A mixed-gender student population is going to be difficult for many Saudis to accept. I suspect the university will be under tremendous pressure from law authorities because the campus is not accessible to routine inspection like other Saudi universities. Further, Western academics teaching Saudis opens the university to
criticism from conservatives that the West is corrupting Saudi youth.
I suppose we can sit back and hope that KAUST fails; that its impact on Saudis will be minimal and the grand experiment will be an object lesson that Saudis have no need for foreign meddlers in our education system. But if my critic is correct that the Saudi education system is a failure, then KAUST is indeed a bold experiment that deserves our support to ensure that it succeeds, and the lessons we learn there
will be passed on to the rest of the Kingdom.
It’s easy to dismiss KAUST as a $10 billion debacle that further lines the pockets of expatriate academics. It’s more courageous to take $10 billion risks to ensure Saudi Arabia future in the international