THUWAL, SAUDI ARABIA // In regal style, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz last night hosted a lavish party for more than 3,000 guests to celebrate the formal launching of the monarch's long-time dream: a new graduate level university to advance scientific research and technological innovation. The inauguration of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust - featuring a sit-down banquet, thunderous fireworks and a colourful laser show - was attended by several heads of state, including Syrian President Bashar Assad, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Philippines President Maria Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Jordan's King Abdullah and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh also attended for the festivities, which began with a programme of speeches, poetry and music in a gigantic prefabricated hangar-like building. Inside, diplomats, scientists and academics from around the world sat with Saudi guests in blue upholstered chairs. "The university, whose inauguration we celebrate today, did not emerge from nowhere. It is a continuation of what distinguished our civilisation in its golden age," said King Abdullah in brief remarks to the audience.
"Throughout history," he added, "power has attached itself, after God, to science. And the Islamic nation knows too well that it will not be powerful unless it depends, after God, on science. For faith and science cannot compete except in unhealthy souls." The king has said he wants the new university to spark a renewal of the scientific prowess that once marked early Islamic civilisation. The new campus, located 80 kilometres north of Jeddah, was built in just two years under the management of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.
The inauguration was marked by tight security, with more than 12,000 police, military and security personnel patrolling the 16 sq km site. Added vigilance came from helicopters flying overhead. On the mind of Saudi security officials, no doubt, was last month's attempted assassination of the deputy interior minister and chief counter-terrorism official, Prince Muhammad bin Naif. An al Qa'eda affiliate that is seeking to bring down the Saudi government managed a publicity coup when one of its suicide bombers blew himself up in the home of the prince, who was only slightly hurt.
University officials, and the king himself, have promised that the university will enjoy academic freedom. But journalists attending the inauguration found an early test of that freedom wanting. When several journalists approached students on campus to talk about their experiences, they told the reporters that they had been ordered not to speak to the media. During a morning news conference, Saudi petroleum minister Ali Al Naimi said that the opening of the new university, endowed with at least US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) by the king, is "a historical event and represents a pivotal point for our nation [because we know] it is incumbent to diversity the economy".
The minister said that harnessing solar energy will be a research priority for Kaust. He told the director of research, Mr Al Naimi added, "that Saudi Arabia exports eight million barrels of oil a day. So we should be able to generate equivalent BTUs through solar energy both for domestic use and export." email@example.com