THUWAL, SAUDI ARABIA // With an international audience of scientists, educators and corporate leaders looking on, King Abdullah today launches a unique venture in Arab higher education as he inaugurates a new, richly-endowed graduate university dedicated to scientific research and innovation. King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, or KAUST, is a long-time dream of the Saudi monarch. It was his doing that its gleaming, modernistic campus, equipped with advanced research tools, including one of the world's fastest-ever supercomputers, rose from the barren expanse around this tiny Saudi fishing village in a record two years.
The new university's mission, officials have said, is to be a catalyst for diversifying the economy of the world's largest oil producer and to stimulate the growth of a knowledge-based Islamic culture. King Abdullah said he wanted KAUST to replicate Beit Al Hikmah, or House of Wisdom, the renowned Islamic learning centre that flourished in Baghdad from the 8th-11th centuries. To ensure that the new institution has the means to do this, the king endowed KAUST with a reported US$10 billion (Dh37bn), and possibly more, of his own money - officials would not confirm the exact amount - making it one of the richest universities in the world.
"KAUST will herald a new era of scientific and economic progress in the kingdom ...[and] increase the contributions of Arabs and Muslims to human civilisation," said the Saudi petroleum and mineral resources minister, Ali al Naimi, who is also chairman of KAUST's board of trustees. The king has promised that KAUST will enjoy academic freedom in its scientific and research pursuits. And he has sought to protect it from outside interference by creating an independent board of trustees, whose members include both Saudis and foreigners.
Additionally, the university's endowment is a waqf, meaning that as long as Islamic law is respected, income from the endowment cannot be redirected to other purposes by future government decisions. KAUST's inaugural class of 374 graduate students are all on scholarships and come from around the world. According to the school's website, the largest nationalities in the student body are Saudi (15 per cent), Chinese (14 per cent), Mexican (11 per cent) and American (eight per cent). The majority (330) are seeking master's degrees and the rest, doctorates.
Rather than traditional academic departments, KAUST has been organised around interdisciplinary research centres. Each is devoted to solving specific scientific problems faced by Saudi Arabia and other countries. These will include research on harnessing solar and wind energy, increasing the desert's agricultural potential, reducing carbon emissions and improving water desalination techniques. KAUST students can follow nine degree programs, including bioscience, chemical and biological engineering, applied mathematics and computational science, electrical engineering and earth science. They will do some coursework, but research is the main degree requirement.
University officials say that their hope is that KAUST research will produce innovations that can be put to practical use. "We see our students ... as job creators," KAUST spokesman Jamil F al Dandany said in an interview. Reflecting the globalised world into which KAUST was born, the school has sought to implement its mission through partnerships with already established universities, as well as with major international and Saudi corporations. The university will fund some research projects undertaken at partner universities.
The KAUST president, Choon Fong Shih, former president and vice-chancellor of the National University of Singapore, likened the partnerships to the spokes of a wheel, with KAUST as the hub. Already, the university has partnerships with such higher education institutions as France's Institut Francais du Petrole, Cambridge University, Stanford and Berkley Universities, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National University of Singapore, the American University of Cairo, Bombay's Indian Institute of Technology and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Research deals have also been struck with corporate partners, including General Electric, Dow Chemical and IBM. For now, the university has 71 faculty members, which is less than a third of what it hopes to have by 2020, according to Mr Shih, who envisions an academic staff of 225 members and a student body of 2,000 by then all living at Thuwal campus, which was designed for 20,000 residents. The inauguration ceremony this evening, which will be webcast live at http://inauguration.kaust.edu.sa, fulfils a desire that King Abdullah has nurtured, he said, for a quarter of a century. But he only began to realise his dream after ascending to the throne in 2005. Plans took shape on paper in 2006. In October 2007, the monarch presided at the ground-breaking.
In the two years since then, university officials say, he has closely followed progress of the construction, which included planting 83,551 trees and shrubs, making unannounced visits to the site to see for himself. In order to circumvent the religiously conservative officials who control Saudi education, which traditionally has stressed religion over science, and also to ensure that KAUST would be built without delays, the king entrusted its construction to Saudi Aramco.
The national oil company has an international reputation for technological and engineering skill, as well as experience in large infrastructure projects. Many Saudis are wary of KAUST because of its more relaxed social environment, including the breaking of the taboo against co-education. Male and female students will study and work together at KAUST, women will not have to wear the abaya and they will be permitted to drive on the 16-square-kilometre campus. (The campus includes another 20 square kilometres of protected marine life in the Red Sea.)
Some in Saudi Arabia's conservative religious establishment have openly criticised the gender "mixing" to be allowed at KAUST and others have remonstrated privately with the king against it, university and other sources said. For example, one Saudi, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Alturafi wrote on the website www.mubasheer.com that gender mixing, an idea "borrowed from Westerners, especially Americans," is forbidden in Islam and if allowed in the kingdom would generate "a lot of problems to society".
Another Saudi, Abdullah Al Zaidy, writing at www.almokhtsar.com, expressed "sorrow" at the idea of gender mixing at KAUST, which is a violation of Sharia or Islamic law. He called upon readers "to drive the message to the king that most women and men in the country are ashamed of having such a university named after him". For now, Kaust's physical location means that it will be somewhat isolated from the rest of Saudi society. University officials said they don't intend its social freedoms for women to spread throughout the kingdom. Rather, they hope that KAUST's biggest impact will be on the national education system, forcing it to raise its standards and replace rote learning with creative thinking.