Last Sunday, 21 October, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz laid the cornerstone for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in the village of Thuwal, north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. The king has commissioned the heads of Saudi Aramco with the task of executing and managing the project; appointing Nadhmi A. al Nasr as the university’s interim president, Ahmad O. al Khowaiter as the interim provost of KAUST and Saudi Minister of Petroleum Ali L. al Naimi to preside over the project.
The KAUST project is a monumental undertaking in terms of budget [10 billion Saudi Riyals (SAR), approximately US $2.67 billion], in addition to the huge area allocated for the university [over 36 million square meters, including coral-reef ecosystem that will be preserved by the university as a marine sanctuary]. However, what truly marks the immense scale of this project is the ‘philosophy’ on which it is established and the opportunities it will offer the world of higher education in the kingdom.
King Abdullah hailed it the new ‘Dar al Hikma’ (House of Wisdom) in his opening speech at the university’s grand inauguration ceremony in which distinguished international guests were in attendance. A university such as KAUST aspires to ‘launch’ scientific research to a new and unprecedented trajectory in a country that represents the heart of the global economy by virtue of its oil wealth.
Four specialized research centers will undertake studies from an industrial, economic, social, environmental and developmental perspective to ascertain the needs of future industries and projects, such as desalination and rationing of water, suitable agriculture for desert climates and research in the fields of International Technology (IT) and health, among other things. Additionally, the king has allocated a special endowment to be used to fund the university, a common method employed in major American universities, which marks a first in Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the heads of KAUST are discussing partnerships with major international research centers. Minister and Engineer al Naimi who is also the chairman of the university’s Presidential Search Committee has stated that they are looking for a candidate who possess the necessary qualifications to manage an endeavor of this magnitude. It is not strictly stipulated that the president be Saudi; in fact, he most likely will not be a Saudi national, however the main objective is to utilize those with the best experience away from detrimental identity complexes.
We are presently on the threshold of a higher education renaissance that is expected to break out of the trajectory of vicious circles.
Perhaps the reason behind this novel approach could be attributed to the thinking-out-of-the-box mode of thought, which manifests itself clearly in the courage that lies in realizing the dream and vision of this great project, which has been King Abdullah’s central preoccupation for nearly a quarter of a century. This fact was stated by the oil minister who made a reference to the kingdom’s most famous success story, namely the Saudi Aramco company.
In the opening ceremony, President, Director and CEO of Saudi Aramco, Abdullah S. Jum’ah said, “Saudi Aramco’s company history will proudly add to its pages the honor of establishing and developing the university.”
Saudi Aramco started out as an American company, which then became a state-owned Saudi company that is managed and run using state-of-the-art methods. The company is not simply an oil company; it is part of the state’s political, economic, social, and media history as well.
Since May 1933, when Saudi Arabia signed a concessionary agreement under incumbent King Abdulaziz, Saudi Aramco has undergone many changes. It has become an integral part of modern Saudi’s renaissance and the changes in the region have had their impact on the company. In fact, major players in the world of finance and economy have emerged from Saudi Aramco, some of whom had started out as chauffeurs, office boys and low-ranking employees. Moreover, some of them had been illiterate and have since become key figures in the economy and in the oil industry, such as Minister al Naimi and late Saudi billionaire Suliman al Olyan.
Saudi Aramco is a whole culture not just a company; perhaps the two factor that most actively contributed to that distinction are the magnitude of the project and the need to create an environment for continuous production and training. The company does not operate on a marginal scale and most definitely does not seek to gain superficial contracts and has no interest in making fast money. Rather, it is a company that operates upon a constant strategic condition that is associated with a basic industry in the world on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Saudi government has ensured the company’s maximum benefit (after having pushed it) to learn from the US expertise and contributions in the educational field and in infrastructure.
But the impact of Saudi Aramco was not confined to the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, but rather extended to the neighboring Gulf Sates. The most prominent example upon this is Saudi Aramco television, which was the second Arabic-language station to go on the air in the Middle East. The first was an outlet telecasting from Baghdad. Additionally, ‘al Qafila’ magazine, Saudi Aramco’s publication played a key role in spreading cultural awareness.
Discussing the future of KAUST necessitates mentioning another university that is closely associated with the oil industry, the King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals, which established the College of Petroleum and Minerals (CPM) in the early ‘60s. Once a shining beacon and exceptional educational institution that was far removed from the futile political and intellectual debates in the kingdom, this university did not help prevent the deterioration of the standard of Saudi university education.
A study conducted last year revealed that Saudi universities were at the bottom of list of international universities provoked the anger of the kingdom’s higher education officials. They argued that the classification was neither academic nor satisfactory and the topic was an ongoing controversy. The ideal answer to the question is what took place last Sunday; and it is the inauguration of a new age in the state’s educational sector.
Many academics have complained about the deterioration of the standard of universities in Saudi, save a few, and the hegemony of a religiously didactic culture. They argue that it is now time to stop eroding the scientific and cultural development. For instance, one can hardly find a ‘public’ university in Saudi without an integrated section for culture or Islamic studies, despite the existence of many universities that specialize in Islamic sciences, such as Umm al Qora University, the Islamic University and Al Imam University.
The problem is that in most universities the focus has been diverted towards futile issues and some researches have dedicated their efforts to issues other than development and the promotion of scientific and critical skills. According to a documented study issued by the King Faisal Center for Studies, the total number of university theses up to 1998 in Saudi Arabia was over 10,000 masters and doctorate theses and similar studies. Most likely, these dissertations revolved around marginal issues save a few.
My objection is not about the existence of university that feature the history of Asharites, Motazalites, the jurisprudence of pilgrimage, rather it is that we do not see an equal counterpart in scientific research or issues relating to the much-needed development and sciences.
This is the real problem in a changing world. President of Saudi Aramco Abdullah S. Jum’ah said during his address before King Abdullah, “There is a deep and saddening gap in knowledge that separates the Arab and Islamic people from the contemporary global civilization. This gap is rapidly and unfortunately widening.”
Thus comes the importance of a non-traditional university such as this one to become a paradigm for how governments could participate in devoting their energy and efforts to the real causes rather than squandering them on marginal issues that only end up causing conflict and inciting hatred.