The watchword of the moment in Saudi Arabia's educational sector is modernisation. The latest example is the recently opened "King Abdullah University" near Jeddah, which is attracting top researchers from around the world. Arnfrid Schenk has the details
A common saying in the Arab world goes: "Seek knowledge, even as far as China!" Yet if everything goes the way Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah wishes, seekers of knowledge in his kingdom will not have to travel quite as far in future.
Close to Jeddah, less than 100 kilometres away from Mecca, a new university has now opened its doors. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, KAUST for short, aims to become one of the best in the world.
King Abdullah has invested 12.5 billion dollars in KAUST. The campus is 36 square kilometres in size and equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories, providing workplaces for outstanding research and teaching staff from around the world.
Modelled on MIT
Two thirds of the 2000 places at the university will also go to foreign graduate students. KAUST intends to join the ranks of the world's leading research universities, its role model being the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The university has certainly gained a number of big names as partner institutions: Berkeley, Cambridge, Stanford, Imperial College London and Germany's Munich Technical University. These universities are receiving seven-figure sums to forward their research projects at KAUST, focusing on the bio and nano-sciences, energy technology, materials science and IT.
The Munich university is getting 21 million dollars for three projects. One of these is a three-dimensional imaging project for Saudi Arabia, depicting not only the country's surface but also the geological structures below ground.
KAUST is driving up Saudi Arabia's higher education fever, a common phenomenon in the Gulf states in recent years. The sheikhs have realised that the end of the oil period is nigh, and are looking for alternatives to secure the future of their principalities.
Knowledge as raw material
Tomorrow's raw material is knowledge, and the sciences and technology are in great demand. Because time is of the essence but the quality has to be high, expertise is bought in – mainly from the West.
The universities are happy to come, especially from the USA, Australia and Britain. The Gulf region is a growth market, and the aim is to stake a claim early on. Education is becoming an export leader. Qatar, for instance, has built a huge Education City, where several different American universities are offering courses. The Sorbonne has founded a subsidiary in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, while Dubai's ruler hopes to push research by means of a billion-dollar foundation.
And now Saudi Arabia is taking its first steps towards the knowledge society. The theocracy is a country where a great deal to do with free thinking is simply banned. A country at the very bottom of the academic rankings with one of the world's worst educational systems. Where religious scholars and the religious police have the say. Can this new direction ever work?
KAUST is intended to stand for liberalism. The university has been erected quasi on ex-territorial ground, and is meant to be able to act independently of the Saudi ministries. Women and men are meant to study and research together, with women even allowed to drive cars – perhaps a small matter in scientific terms but with great symbolic value for Saudi Arabia. KAUST will change society, Saudi dignitaries promised when the foundation stone was laid in 2007.
New example of Saudi megalomania?
Critics, including in the Arab world, have labelled the project a new example of the usual Saudi megalomania, which would lead to little in the end.
Yet there is one sign that the promises of internationalisation are more than mere lip service – the man appointed president. He is Choon Fong Shih, a Harvard-trained engineer and until recently head of the University of Singapore. And another indication that Saudi Arabia really means business is the fact that the state oil company Aramco was commissioned with building the university, rather than the less efficient higher education ministry.
It remains to be seen how far the King Abdullah University can really reach out of the ivory tower to influence Saudi society. And whether it is a model that meets the country's needs: have the authorities thought to interlock it with the Saudi economy and business world? What opportunities will Saudi graduates have to employ what they learn there in their own country?
King Abdullah is aiming to transform Saudi Arabia, not just in the educational sector. But the king is 85 years old, and the reform projects are very closely tied to him personally. The Saudi desert will be the site of an interesting experiment in the years to come.
© Die Zeit / Qantara.de 2009
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire