A Mecca of Science


It hasn’t even been four years since KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was founded in the village of Thuwal in Saudi Arabia. The university’s vision is to become a world leader in research for disciplines of engineering, mathematics, and other physical sciences. Its campus is housed on 8,900 acres of desert, and features state-of-the-art laboratories including rare equipment for nanofabrication and imaging, and even the world’s highest resolution virtual environment. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

But it’s in this same nation, whose scientists may procure the next major discovery in nanoparticle engineering, where women are still forbidden to drive. How is Saudi Arabia going to strike a balance between what is at the cutting edge of research and modernity, and what is permitted in that dense Wahhabi bureaucracy?

It seems that so far, they have succeeded in acquiring the talent and resources needed to launch into the top ranks. Their professors come from all corners of the globe- even from universities here in the United States. It was just announced on Tuesday that the next President of KAUST will be Jean-Lou Chameau, current President of Caltech. Their endowment, only in its 4th year, is 10 billion USD: that surpasses Columbia’s by 2.5 billion. The Saudi elite has certainly shown a willingness to flex its financial muscle on this institution.

So how is Saudi Arabia reconciling its forthcoming scientific revolution with the conservative interpretations of Shari’a that pervade the nation’s religious police? Saudi Arabia’s other universities are segregated, and the nation houses the world’s largest women’s-only university with over 50,000 students, Princess Nora University. KAUST, however, acts as a “free-zone” against the strict rules that apply for the rest of the country. KAUST is the first coeducational university in the country, and beyond this women and men can mix freely in classes and public areas (prayer rooms are still segregated). Many members of its Trustee Board are Shi’a, a minority in Saudi Arabia that largely faces discrimination on a political level. Women do not even need to wear the veil in the campus’s public areas.

But it’s still odd, despite these “concessions,” to see high-resolution pictures on the KAUST website of an oriental woman consulting with a dark-skinned man peering into a microscope. It seems unlikely that KAUST, in isolation, will actually improve Saudi Arabia’s macro-inequalities like the fact that women comprise 50% of university students but only 15% of the workforce. Is KAUST truly a symbol of modernity and progress in Saudi Arabia, or is it a superficial guise that uses the immense wealth of the elite to attract talent from abroad, create talent out of a largely unskilled population, and most importantly generate a return on the investment?

Some people argue that no matter how hard one tries, money can never shift the social paradigm. That’s why Hebah Ahmed, a blogger with Muslim Matters and frequent guest on CNN for Middle East reporting, argues that despite the fact that the ban on driving in Saudi Arabia is morally reprehensible, any movement to change that must be from within. According to Ahmed, in Saudi Arabia, driving is considered a very “low-class” thing and many women hire inexpensive drivers to move them around. Any financial or external movement will be fruitless unless the people realize and recognize the need for that change themselves.

The million-dollar question (or perhaps the billion dollar one), is figuring out if this critique applies on a greater scale, one that places the current religious paradigm of Saudi Arabians on the same social plateau as science. KAUST wants to hit the world’s top ten in science and technology by 2020. Whether they will make it or not depends on this very balance posed for Saudi Arabia, the balance that is setting a precedent amongst nations in the Middle East that face their own torrents of transition.