To what extent can you ‘build’ a high quality university from the ground up? Hard to say, but as long as you got plenty of oil money, why not try? The Saudi government is embarking on a very ambitious project and puts its billions behind Western-Style Higher Education. But Nature questions whether one of the fundamental principles of a ‘western style’ university (or in my opinion, any university) applies in Saudi Arabia and asks whether a Saudi university can think freely? Ziauddin Sardar, a UK-based writer, is skeptical:

“The bureaucratic police state will no doubt buy the best scientific equipment and personnel that money can buy. But it cannot provide the atmosphere of criticism and openness that scientific research needs to flourish.”

Saudi Arabia does not exactly have a long history of higher education. Even though oil production transformed the country into one of the richest in the world, the higher education system has not kept pace. In 1975 a Ministry of Higher Education was established, but it took until this century before serious investments were made in the creation of universities and colleges. Royal oil dollars are now pored into the system in order to create their own Yales and Harvards:

King Abdullah has provided $10-billion of his own money to establish a graduate-level science-and-technology university, instantly making it the sixth wealthiest university in the world. And the government has lifted a decades-old ban on private institutions, offering free land and more than $10-million toward scholarships and building costs for what they hope will become the Harvards and Yales of the Middle East.


But the Chronicle article agrees that a bottomless bank account might not be the only ingredient needed for a top-notch education system. Saudi Arabia obviously is not a country where knowledge and information travels freely. Other problems for which solutions cannot simply be bought nor copied are the existence of a class room culture where rote learning is stressed over innovative and creative thinking, the existence of a system with a serious lack of attention for research and institutions where career advancement is more related to political ties than academic merit. In addition, the country has shown to be more interested in producing imams instead of the businessmen or scientists that the economy needs.

But things will change in the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). According to Ali Al-Naimi, the minister for petroleum and mineral resources and the official who will head this new project, the university will have an unprecedented level of independence. “Life on campus will be free. Scholars can dream, think, and innovate with a lot of freedom”, according to Al Naimi.

In developing the university, the government has hired an international advisory team consisting of – among others – the president emeritus of Cornell and the rector of Imperial College London. But it’s not just in the public sector that serious investments are made to create new ‘western-style’ universities:

Al-Faisal University, which is being developed by the King Faisal Foundation, an organization endowed by the sons of the former Saudi king to promote education in the kingdom, is one of the first private universities to receive permission to open and one of the few nonprofit private institutions in the country. Like King Abdullah University, it is modeling itself on Western universities, with help from Western scholars.


In the case of Al-Faisal University, Harvard Medical International (affiliated with Harvard Medical School) will be involved in the creation of the medical school, while the University of Cambridge and MIT will be designing the engineering programme.

One major issue in the establishment of these two new institutions is the gender issue. Both Al-Faisal University and King Abdullah University will become co-educational institutions. For Al-Faisal however this seems to be a stretchable concept:

Unlike at King Abdullah University, though, men and women will not be allowed to interact, in accordance with the country’s legally mandated gender segregation. The university will have split-level classrooms, where women attend the same lectures as men but from balconies surrounded by one-way glass.

An underground entrance for women — dropped off by their drivers — will lead directly to stairwells, elevators, and floors strictly segregated by gender. But since even those accommodations would raise many eyebrows in Saudi Arabia, Al-Faisal is starting with male students only to gain social credibility first.

Also for the recruitment of staff, the gender segregation might become an issue. Nature anticipates on this issue by questioning the search for KAUST’s president, to be selected by an international committee:

What if the committee chooses a woman? “The search is merit-based; if a woman is the best candidate we will have no problem with that,” says Mohammed Mulla, a university spokesman.

Members of the search committee say that it may be difficult to find a woman willing to take the post, given the severe restrictions placed on women in the kingdom, but insist that if there is any interference in their choice they will resign.

I guess you can hire experts from MIT and Cambridge, you can model yourself after Harvard and Yale, you can invest billions of oil dollars, but I wonder whether you can create a ‘western style university’ (or any university) when ideas and information have to travel through ceilings and one-way windows… On the other hand, such changes don’t come overnight. But I guess it’s a start.

Al-Faisal university will open its doors in September 2008. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will start in September 2009.

This article has 148 comments

  1. Hussain M

    Dear Eric,

    Thanks for writing about Kaust,
    However i beg to differ on your views.

    Kaust is not meant to be a Western style university to begin with.
    its meant to be an Engineering University with Western standards and scientific knowledge. There are no political and law studies to be conducted at Kaust.

    As for the issue of women, please understand that things are changing, slowly but non the less thay are changing, there is word that women may begin driving in KSA within 2 years from now.

    There shouldnt be any problem for women, as women alrady drive inside Oil Company grounds and KFUPM campus,Kaust is no different.

    I graduated as a Building engineer From King Faisal University and am currently working the oil company on-site at KAUST maintaining Quality control. And i can Assure you KAUST stands to deliver on its word of 21st century education techniques, not western based values.

    thanks for the blog,

    And Keep up the good work.


  2. Eric

    Dear Hussain,
    Thanks for your comment. I intentionally put ‘western’ in punctuation marks consistently. The term ‘western style’ was used in the Chronicle article and I tried to point out that a university isn’t about western style or any other style. What counts is that information and knowledge should be able to travel freely. I don’t think that is necessarily a western notion. I prefer to see it as a universal value (but of course I may be ‘western biased’)

    The free flow of knowledge might be more of an issue in political studies or other social sciences, but I think that is also necessary for science and technology studies.

    I also agree that certain changes do not occur overnight and need time. I do hope that the gender issue will keep on changing, because I indeed don’t believe in the separation of men and women in a university. Here again, I think it is an obstacle for the free exchange of ideas and knowledge.

    With you, I hope that KAUST will become successful in delivering high quality education and research, based on certain universal – not necessarily western – values.

  3. Mohammad

    Hi Eric,

    An interesting post. While I strongly support all aspects of freedom, I really don’t think that “freedom” is a big deal in this case.

    KAUST is solely dedicated to Engineering and Applied Sciences. As an engineer myself, I know that research and innovation in these fields depends ultimately upon a) generous funding and b) the absence of academic and bureaucratic barriers.

    Fortunately, the founding principles of KAUST clearly address those issues and provide an excellent strategy for tackling them.

    We, the new generation of engineers and scientists in the Middle East, are looking forward to be enriched by the advice, help, and constructive criticism of all scholars and experts around the world.

    Your posts and comments are greatly appreciated.


  4. TAJ

    Dear Eric

    I found your article about Saudi Arabia quiet interesting.

    First if you are interested in universities that imolementing western models, there are now more private universities in Saudi Arabia that is adopting a western model, for example Prince Sultan University, Prince Mohammed University, Management Collage, Alyamamah Medical Collage and may be there are others that I can recall at the moment.

    Thanks for the interesting article.



    I’m off to KAUST soon and looking forward to the definite changes occuring in SA.
    BTW my kids are studying about Eric the Viking – do you have a viking heritage:? (I hope u dont mind my asking)

  6. bandar

    Dear Eric,

    Thank you very much for your opinions .

    I am bandar al-malki one of the protection officers that will be working at KAUST .

    me and my fellow officers are now taking more than one course to be able to handle what is going on at KAUST .

    I can assure you that the training that we are taking is unique and very professional and -believe me when I say- on of its kind training .

    our duty is to protect, guide and to make the people there feel like welcomed “men and women” without interfering with thier ways of thinking, religion, life-styles .

    In MY opinion we are a combination of trained professional military men and waiters, and thats IN MY opinion is what protection officers should be like .

    Every one here is trying to make an atmosphere that is best for every nationality student to be creative at.

    Please accept my appologies for my weak and simple english language .

    My Best regards .

  7. Saman Khan

    Hello Eric and everyone else,

    Actually I’m planning to apply into King Faisal University for a bachelor in Science starting september 2009, but I have no idea that how is it and are female applicants allowed? So, I want to know so that I can apply soon please advise kindly.

  8. Iffat

    hi saman,
    i am a medical student in alfaisal university. i am not really sure whether u can apply for science in 2009 as they are still not accepting any female students as far as i am concerned. but plz contact the admissions office just to make sure.

    hope this helps!

  9. me

    KAUST is a fee-paying institution for foreigners, mainly from the Arab world. It is run as a buiness and mixed. Hence there are virtually no Saudi students. KSA universtities graduate 1000s of students every year. Most are not considered capable of taking on a responsible position.

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