Cover story Can a new research university save the Saudi economy and transform a closed society? John Gravois on the birth of Kaust.
Can a new research university save the Saudi economy and transform a closed society? John Gravois on the birth of Kaust. In a bustling harbour just north of Jeddah one recent morning, a white 27-metre diving yacht was nosing its way slowly toward the open Red Sea. It was a gorgeous blue day, and the marina was teeming with families - young boys running around in swimming trunks; girls clustered at the margins, garbed from head to toe in black. Saudi youths on jetskis were swarming around the yacht, using its wake to launch themselves in the air and perform various tricks. The boat's passengers, however, were absorbed in sombre discussion. They were academic scientists who had recently converged on Jeddah from all over the world, and they naturally fell into trading reports of the shocks their profession had sustained in the global recession. One of the scientists was regaling the others with the latest dismal news from the United States, where the University of California system, one of the country's most prestigious networks of research universities, was enduring an emasculating set of cutbacks. Swaying gently in the boat's main cabin, the other scientists responded with grave wags of the head. But it was hard to sustain the talk of academic doomsday for very long. Most of the boat's passengers were newly minted faculty at the likewise brand-new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust. Just two days before, Kaust had been inaugurated in an extravagant ceremony that brought together several heads of state, approximately 3,000 guests, a laser light show, many minutes of fireworks, and - by some accounts - the largest tent ever constructed without a central pole. (Mark Yudof, the beleaguered president of the University of California system, was among those who made the trip to pay their respects.) Built in just 1,000 days from a seaside stretch of desert, the new university has already staked out one of the most ambitious research agendas in academia, and it has drawn its inaugural cohort of 71 professors from some of the world's great universities. At a time when other research institutions are watching their finances dwindle, Kaust's founding endowment of at least $10 billion - supplied by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud himself - immediately places it among the wealthiest handful of universities on the globe, in the rarefied company of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton. Purely by dint of its wealth, Kaust already represents a major shift in the world's academic gravitational field; if the university's leaders can sustain its ambitions, the desert north of Jeddah stands to become an unlikely new pole in global research and development. Much as Stanford University helped spur the creation of modern-day Silicon Valley, Saudi Arabia hopes that Kaust will jump-start a whole new "knowledge economy" that springs from research parks, patents, innovation and production. It's a remarkable goal for one of the most closed and traditional societies in the world. But the successful construction of an ivory tower - or, as the case may be, an ivory gated compound - is only a first step. "The question is whether it will actually translate into something more permanent and durable in Saudi Arabia itself," says Bernard Haykel, a Princeton historian who has studied the Kingdom extensively. The rest of Saudi Arabia's education sector remains under the purview of the religious establishment, an influential bloc that is sceptical of the new university - if not overtly hostile to its approach. How much can Kaust push the limits of Saudi society from behind a security perimeter? Yet it is telling that Kaust's tweaks of the traditional western university model are intended to serve Saudi Arabia's aggressive economic and industrial ambitions rather than to accommodate the country's starkly conservative social mores. Yes, the internet is censored on campus, and the security that rings the university is formidable. But the university is co-ed, its faculty and students are drawn from all over the world and its curriculum is self-determined without the oversight of any religious authorities. Not surprisingly, those decisions have already come under fire from Saudi traditionalists, who will likely pose a continuing challenge to the university in the years to come. For the larger Middle East, meanwhile, Kaust marks nothing less than the arrival of serious science in a region without any true research universities: until now, the entire landscape has been under-studied. Whether or not Saudi society at large begins to emulate life inside the gates of Kaust, its founding nonetheless represents a major geographical redistribution of scientific attention and inquiry.
The Kaust campus sits on the shores of the Red Sea about an hour north of Jeddah, along the road to Medina; pilgrims performing Umrah these days whizz by dozens of billboards proclaiming "a new era of science" on their way to the holy city. The university is set off by a wide security perimeter from the village of Thuwal - a dusty settlement of low buildings with cracked boundary walls and clattering trucks. Rising above the village in earthen colours and stark geometry, the barely completed campus - punctuated by two high, hollow glass towers ("solar chimneys") - appears as a distinctly alien presence on the landscape. In the realm of higher education, the institutional structure of Kaust is similarly otherworldly. For starters, the all-science university has done away with two of academia's sacred touchstones: traditional academic departments, and tenure. Rather than departments, Kaust is organised around problems - specifically, Saudi Arabia's problems. Hence, rather than a physics and a chemistry department, Kaust has a Solar and Alternative Energy Science and Engineering research centre and a Water Desalination and Reuse research centre. Several of the university's nine research centres are explicitly organised around developing sustainable technologies of the sort that might be particularly handy once the petrochemical economy has gone the way of the typewriter. And while some of Kaust's projects - like its Red Sea research centre - are slightly more geared towards pure science, most of Kaust's research centres were very much designed with industrial applications in mind. "They're already aligned with the needs of the industry," says Ahmad O al Khowaiter, the university's interim vice president for economic development. Unlike at a traditional university where professors operate out of standardised academic departments, at Kaust, al Khowaiter says, "companies don't have the challenge of trying to find who's interested in their problems". Each professor, meanwhile, is hired on a renewable, rolling five-year contract, and is automatically granted an annual research budget that ranges from $400,000 to $800,000, to use at his or her discretion. So far, the faculty seem to regard this as a favourable trade-off between tenure and the kind of research independence that comes with steady money. (Scientists in the US or Europe may have long-term job security, the thinking goes, but their research is henpecked by the constant need to request money from funding agencies, which have their own agendas.) "Here you have complete freedom to do what you want to do," says Gary Amy, the director of the desalination research centre. "You just think about what is interesting scientifically and you invest your allocated research funds into that." (Of course, it helps if what you find interesting also gets you rehired in five years.)
When it comes to students, the university enrols no undergraduates - all of Kaust's students are pursuing either a masters or a PhD, and are primed for the laboratory. (This is a rare, if not unheard of, set-up in higher education; Rockefeller University, a highly-regarded science institution in New York, does the same.) The university's student-recruitment strategy provides another picture of its largesse: To entice the inaugural class of 374 students to an institution that was still, at the time, a concept without a campus, Kaust's recruiters offered to pay for them to complete their undergraduate degrees, with a living stipend thrown in on top. ("I became financially independent at that point," said one American student who accepted the offer before her senior year.) At Kaust, students receive free housing, free tuition, and an annual living allowance that ranges between around $20,000 and $30,000, depending on whether they are masters or PhD students. Large chunks of the inaugural student body come from Saudi (15 per cent), China (14 per cent) and Mexico (8 per cent). Even within the academic petri dish of the Gulf, where new experiments in higher education propagate like e coli, Kaust is especially unusual in one major respect: it is not an imported institution. Abu Dhabi's plan to set up a full-fledged campus of New York University, for example - the only higher education project in the region that would seem to rival Kaust in ambition - is an experiment in mutual leverage: Abu Dhabi provides capital and cedes control over academic affairs, while NYU provides its name, its know-how and its institutional DNA. Qatar's Education City is home to the overseas franchises of an assortment of prestigious American academic brands, including Cornell, Northwestern and Georgetown universities. By contrast, Kaust set out to create an entirely indigenous university that would compete with the finest institutions in the world for faculty and students. Though Kaust did not import its brand identity from overseas, it has found other ways to borrow prestige - and blueprints - from elite institutions abroad. Long before it had a campus, Kaust was a font of international research money, which it used to establish multimillion dollar partnerships with 42 universities across the globe. Some of those agreements guaranteed future collaborations between Kaust and the world's great research institutions - which no doubt helped to attract faculty. Other partnerships were designed to help recruit faculty outright: Kaust struck multimillion-dollar deals with Stanford, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, the University of Texas at Austin and Imperial College London, in which those institutions essentially helped identify the best faculty, curricula and equipment for the new university. In the end, Kaust's founders were able to pick and choose from an enormous storehouse of input and expertise. The inauguration festivities were crawling with eminent scientists who had advised Kaust and were now proudly poking around the campus, identifying where their counsel had been followed. Nina Fedoroff, Hillary Clinton's chief science and technology adviser, was saying that the open office set-up in the university's research buildings had been one of her ideas. Jack Breese, a former director of Microsoft Research, was pleased to see the university had followed his recommendation to build what may be the world's most powerful visualisation lab - a facility for presenting data in immersive three-dimensional representations (Kaust also boasts the second-fastest supercomputer in academia, affectionately named "Shaheen", a cutting-edge nanofabrication facility, and one of the most powerful arrays of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometers in the world.) In other words, because it did not grow directly out of an existing institution with its own allegiances and traditions, Kaust has done everything on its own terms. NYU, for instance, would not have come to Abu Dhabi without a tenure system. Kaust was more willing to dispense with such academic sacred cows - probably because the people who laid the groundwork for the university weren't academics at all. They were oil executives. Unlike other Saudi universities, Kaust was developed by Saudi Aramco, the state-run energy company, rather than by the Ministry of Higher Education. An odd choice, perhaps, but not as odd as it might seem: Aramco is skilled at building westernised enclaves in the desert, and is itself regarded as an island of rationality and efficiency in the country. "They've maintained very high standards of professional excellence and meritocracy in Aramco," says Haykel, the Princeton historian. "They've kept the religious establishment out, and they've given it over to technocrats and protected the technocrats from the politics of the country." Moreover, Aramco is the economic lifeline of Saudi Arabia - and Kaust is in many ways an extension of that function. Most of the university's tweaks and adaptations of the academic norm seem to serve one end: "The mission of Kaust," says al Khowaiter, "is economic development." It is not a mission without urgency. Countries all over the Gulf are struggling to diversify their economies, anticipating the twilight of petrochemical wealth in the region. Yet Saudi Arabia's push to create a new "knowledge economy" is driven by a more immediate pressure as well: the country's large and ballooning population. Dwarfing the other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has a population of 23 million, and only a fraction of them work in the dominant energy sector. By some estimates, the country needs to create 3.8 million new jobs within the next 10 to 15 years just to accommodate the young Saudis who are about to enter the workforce. Some officials suggested that the rush to complete Kaust in 1,000 days was less a feat of showmanship than a mad dash to add capacity to the economy. And so, in a region that has previously fostered hardly any research whatsoever, Kaust is hoping to set itself up as a "landing strip" for technology companies looking to move into the growing Middle East. ("Access to markets, that's the big, big draw," says al Khowaiter.) The university is supposed to create a "culture of innovation" that will spread beyond the campus. But of course, innovation - at least of the cultural variety - is precisely what many of Saudi Arabia's conservatives are dead set against.
On the ground floor of the university's new library - a structure clothed in glass and translucent sheets of stone - there is a modest preliminary collection of general interest titles out on display. It's the airport-bookstore canon, mainly - some Malcolm Gladwell, the Penguin Classics, Thomas Friedman - with subject areas marked off, temporarily, by yellow sticky notes. On the shelves marked "religion", however, there are a several titles that stand out from the rest of the geographically neutral collection. One of them is a slim volume, almost a pamphlet, called The Quran and Modern Science: Compatible or Incompatible? When he took the podium on the night of Kaust's inauguration, King Abdullah - Saudi Arabia's 85 year-old reformist monarch - seemed determined to set out a forceful answer to that very question. As such, his speech aimed over the heads of the western scientists who filled many of the seats. Instead, he seemed to be making his case for the university ("a dream of mine for more than 25 years") to a much larger - and potentially more hostile - audience. "Throughout history, power has attached itself, after God, to science," he said. "And the Islamic nation knows too well that it will not be powerful unless it depends on, after God, science. For science and faith cannot compete except in unhealthy souls." Then the monarch took a turn that - in a stark departure from the suave, futuristic ceremony - suddenly evoked all the darkest tensions in Saudi Arabia's body politic. "Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists, who speak the language of hatred, fear dialogue and pursue destruction," the King said. "Undoubtedly, scientific centres that embrace all peoples are the first line of defence against extremists." Becky Katz, an American student of environmental engineering at Kaust, probably doesn't think of herself as a first line of defence against extremists. But like several foreign students I met at the university, she said she was drawn to Kaust in part because of Saudi Arabia's stark otherness. "I wanted to see it," Katz told me. "It doesn't mean I agree with a lot of things, but it's good to see. Better to know than to assume." A recent Cornell graduate with dreadlocks and a double nose-ring, Katz spoke in earnest but casual terms about the appeal of global education: "As technology and travel become so much more efficient, things become less and less strange. Home doesn't feel that far away." But not all of her reasons for coming to Saudi Arabia were so value-neutral; Katz also said that she was drawn to Kaust because of its progressive social mission. "The intentions are good," she said - citing first and foremost Kaust's decision to become Saudi Arabia's only co-educational university. That decision alone has been enough to make Kaust a major front - and people like Katz unlikely players - in Saudi Arabia's culture war.
Within a few days of the inauguration, the university had become the subject of a rather spectacular media battle between the Wahhabi religious establishment and Saudi Arabia's ardent modernisers. That week, a member of the prominent Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, a fatwa-issuing body, appeared on a TV talk show and fielded a question from the audience regarding the new university. The cleric, Sheikh Saad al Shethri, said that the co-ed campus was unacceptable, and he recommended that a Sharia committee be set up at the university to screen the curriculum for "irregular and alien ideologies, like evolution". Those impromptu remarks unleashed a fierce backlash in the opinion pages of Saudi newspapers, many of which had just days before draped their front pages in glowing, wall-to-wall coverage of the university's opening. "Amidst the Kingdom's celebrations," wrote Khalaf al Harbi in the Arabic daily Okaz, "there were some calls which bore the dust of Tora Bora and belittled this gigantic national accomplishment by raising the issue of co-education." Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-in-chief of Al Watan wrote: "This is a strategy for the conservatives to control the university or at least have a major say in it. This is the old trick for them to have the upper hand to sabotage reform." Sheikh al Shethri tried to recant - and argued that he had been quoted out of context - but it was too late. A week after his television appearance, King Abdullah removed al Shethri from his seat on the religious body by royal decree. In a whole host of ways, Kaust represents lost ground for Saudi Arabia's religious authorities, with whom King Abdullah rules the country in an uneasy alliance. Sheikh al Shethri's sacking is only the latest sign of tensions in that relationship. It has long been clear that the Mutaween, Saudi Arabia's religious police, would have no jurisdiction on campus. And it was no accident that the King passed over the Ministry of Education, a clerical stronghold, and tapped Aramco to set up the university. Still, science and pluralism may rule in Thuwal, but the traditionalists still hold immense power throughout the country; just this summer, Saudi Arabia's only film festival was cancelled in a clampdown by religious authorities. The inauguration of Kaust - which coincided, in a brilliant stroke of propaganda, with Saudi's National Day - may have emboldened the country's modernisers. But it's hard to imagine that al Shethri will be the last religious conservative to challenge Kaust in public. And it's difficult to gauge where the loyalties of the public will lie. One day in Jeddah I took a drive with a Saudi schoolteacher moonlighting as a taxi driver. Young and handsome, he was dressed in jeans and a rumpled button-down shirt, instead of the traditional thobe and ghutra. Along the way, he remarked on a passing car full of attractive girls - and he spoke with evident pride about the huge differences between relatively cosmopolitan Jeddah, with its openness to foreigners, and conservative Riyadh ("those are tribal people"). But when I mentioned Kaust, he quickly focused with disapproval on the mixing of the sexes. "This is a problem," he said. "This is not correct according to our religion." A few minutes later, though, he asked: "You think I can go there?" Meanwhile, the members of the Saudi technocratic elite who are actually attending Kaust air a different set of complaints about the institution. One day I spoke to two Saudi students who were unmoved by the university's multicultural mix and coeducational campus; they had already studied abroad for their undergraduate degrees, after all. What truly bothered them was that the university wasn't actually finished yet. "I think the idea of Kaust is great," one said, "but I think it needs more time."
Of all Kaust's brave new research endeavours, the one that most seems ripped from the pages of science fiction is a centre that focuses on the topic of "plant stress genomics". Scientists there plan to sequence the genomes of "extremophile" plants - species like the mangroves and saltbushes of Saudi Arabia, which naturally tolerate scorching, dry, saline conditions - in the hopes of creating new strains of food crops that display the same death-defying resilience. In a poetic bit of self-advertisement, the scientists say the centre's long-term aim is to "grow wheat with water from the Red Sea". The centre is run by two of Kaust's most impressive faculty hires: Jian-Kang Zhu, a Chinese-American professor from UC Riverside who was recently named the most cited plant scientist in American academia, and Ray Bressan, who came to Kaust from a long, distinguished career at Purdue University. Bressan, a garrulous grey-haired man with an Amish-style chinstrap beard and a taste for braces, was Zhu's adviser in graduate school, and the two men have collaborated across distances of various length ever since. (At one point, Bressan bought a house in Tucson, Arizona just because Zhu was posted there.) Now they occupy two palatial corner offices - all floor-to ceiling windows, hardwood panelling, and custom office furniture - in the same suite overlooking the Red Sea at Kaust, with a genomics laboratory just a short walk away. The plush workspace still has a few kinks to work out, however. At 4:30 one recent afternoon, Bressan was laid out on the milky-white leather couch in his office, napping in the heat of a room whose air conditioner wasn't working and whose two walls of 18-foot windows rendered it an exquisitely decorated hothouse. "Ray, you shouldn't sleep in here," said Zhu, standing over his friend after having dropped in for a visit. "It's too hot, it's not healthy" Just outside Bressan's office, another magnificent 18-foot wall of windows was casting unfiltered sunlight down onto an open pen of low-walled cubicles. The mechanism to raise and lower the custom window blinds wasn't working, so one of the centre's researchers was working at her computer with a yellow post-it note stuck to her forehead as a sunshade. Just down from the office suite, the unfinished genomics lab sat behind a long glass wall and a curtain of dropcloths. Inside was an expanse of bare concrete floors, ladders and scaffolding.
Many of the university's research projects are stalled amid what is euphemistically, sometimes laughably, known throughout the booming Gulf region as "teething problems". Many of the labs are unfinished; some of the world-class equipment is still wrapped in heavy-duty plastic. At the lavish banquet on inauguration night, a bioinformatics PhD student explained to me that he was about to find out where he would spend the next term. Because the necessary labs at Kaust weren't ready, he was being sent to one of the university's partner institutions - in either Scotland or Australia - to get started on his research. (The prospect seemed not to bother him.) Kaust's residential zones have a similarly lavish but-unlived-in feel. Professors live in brand-new neighbourhoods of tract housing, on winding suburban streets with names like "Transformation Drive", where the spaces between homes are filled with nothing but blue sky. The generous homes are furnished with matching sets of fine hotel furniture, multiple flatscreen televisions and dead brown lawns. But all that is only to say that it's too early to tell what Kaust will amount to: how its culture will foster the process of research production, whether the university will be able operate at a secure remove from the antagonistic forces in the Saudi mainstream - and whether that very distance will cut against the university's ability to have a significant effect on the society. As soon as the yacht full of scientists broke free of the harbour for the post-inauguration day-trip, it picked up speed over the open expanse of the Red Sea - giving some of the faculty the chance to catch their first glimpses of the environment they were going to be studying for the next five years. "The sea's pretty flat. Is that the way it usually is?" asked Stein Kaartvedt, a marine zoologist who had arrived from the University of Oslo all of five days before. Somebody nodded. He shrugged: "I can live with that." Long of eyebrow and strong of jaw, Kaartvedt had done most of his research on freezing seas and in bad weather; now he was assuming a new role as associate director of Kaust's Red Sea research centre. ("When we were in Antarctica, we had eight metre waves for two weeks," he said in a yo-yoing Norwegian accent. "You get used to it.") On deck, a desalination researcher stood around brainstorming with a trio of marine ecologists about how they might study the possible effects of desalination runoff on local fish populations. "This would be really good to test in an aquarium system," said Michael Berumen, a Kaust assistant professor of marine science. (Just such an aquarium system - cutting edge but incomplete - was under construction just across the road from Berumen's office.) James Luyten, a tall greying man in wraparound shades, was explaining why he had recently stepped down as director of the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod to lead Kaust's Red Sea research centre. It wasn't just the university's largesse, he said, that brought him there; it was the fact that so much of Saudi Arabia - especially the Red Sea - hasn't been studied. "You cannot work in the Red Sea unless you have a Saudi partner," he said - and Saudi partners had been hard to find until now. "There's been very little survey-intensive field work." Another researcher dilated along the same lines. Money is nice, he said, but unexplored territory is itself another form of wealth for scientists - and in that respect, Kaust and Saudi Arabia are a gold mine. "You have the chance to study something that no one has studied before, and you have all the facilities and equipment that you need," said Ulrich Stingl, an assistant professor who specialises in ocean microbiology. "You wouldn't get that anywhere else in the world."
John Gravois is a senior editor at The Review.