Education in Saudi Arabia

Stephen DeAngelis

November 01, 2007

One of the oft-leveled charges against the royal house of Saud is that is has generally failed to invest its vast oil wealth in infrastructure that will help the kingdom and its people once oil revenues start to decline. With oil nearing $100 a barrel, most oil producing governments are simply happy to rake in the dough, but — for once — the Saudis seem to be thinking about the future [“Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert,” by Thanassis Cambanis, New York Times, 25 October 2007].

“On a marshy peninsula 50 miles from this Red Sea port, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is staking $12.5 billion on a gargantuan bid to catch up with the West in science and technology. Between an oil refinery and the sea, the monarch is building from scratch a graduate research institution that will have one of the 10 largest endowments in the world, worth more than $10 billion. Its planners say men and women will study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country’s notorious religious police will be barred and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom’s cultural and religious limits.”

King Abdullah is trying to recapture the glory days when Islamic culture produced great poetry, architecture, and mathematics. The shame is this effort has to be “walled off” from the rest of Saudi society in order to gain a toehold in that country.

“This undertaking is directly at odds with the kingdom’s religious establishment, which severely limits women’s rights and rejects coeducation and robust liberal inquiry as unthinkable. For the new institution, the king has cut his own education ministry out the loop, hiring the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco to build the campus, create its curriculum and attract foreigners. Supporters of what is to be called the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, wonder whether the king is simply building another gated island to be dominated by foreigners, like the compounds for oil industry workers that have existed here for decades, or creating an institution that will have a real impact on Saudi society and the rest of the Arab world. ‘There are two Saudi Arabias,’ said Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of Al Watan, a newspaper. ‘The question is which Saudi Arabia will take over.’ The king has broken taboos, declaring that the Arabs have fallen critically behind much of the modern world in intellectual achievement and that his country depends too much on oil and not enough on creating wealth through innovation. ‘There is a deep knowledge gap separating the Arab and Islamic nations from the process and progress of contemporary global civilization,’ said Abdallah S. Jumah, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco. ‘We are no longer keeping pace with the advances of our era.'”

There already are universities in Saudi Arabia but they are shackled by religious authorities who fear that academic freedom will result in loss of faith.

“Traditional Saudi practice is on display at the biggest public universities, where the Islamic authorities vet the curriculum, medical researchers tread carefully around controversial subjects like evolution, and female and male students enter classrooms through separate doors and follow lectures while separated by partitions.

Demonstrating just how difficult overcoming religious fundamentalist challenges is going to be as the project moves forward the article notes that even the groundbreaking ceremony was touched by censorship.

“Old-fashioned values even seeped into the carefully staged groundbreaking ceremony … for King Abdullah’s new university, at which organizers distributed an issue of the magazine The Economist with a special advertisement for the university wrapped around the cover. State censors had physically torn from each copy an article about Saudi legal reform titled ‘Law of God Versus Law of Man,’ leaving a jagged edge.”

There is no doubt that the new university will have some of the world’s finest facilities, but in order to become a world class university it will need both great instructors and gifted students.

“Despite the obstacles, the king intends to make the university a showcase for modernization. The festive groundbreaking and accompanying symposium about the future of the modern university were devised partly as a recruiting tool for international academics. ‘Getting the faculty will be the biggest challenge,’ said Ahmed F. Ghoniem, a professor at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology who is consulting for the new university. ‘That will make it or break it.’ Professor Ghoniem has advised the new university to lure international academics with laboratory facilities and grants they cannot find at home, but he also believes that established professors will be reluctant to leave their universities for a small enclave in the desert.”

Cambanis goes on to note that great academic achievement generally means great connectivity with the rest of the world. A walled university doesn’t exactly conjure up an image of open and honest intellectual inquiry.

“‘You have to create an environment where you can connect to the outside world,’ said Professor Ghoniem, who is from Egypt. ‘You cannot work in isolation.’ He admitted that even though he admired the idea of the new university, he would be unlikely to abandon his post at M.I.T. to move to Saudi Arabia.”

Despite all of these challenges, King Abdullah is pushing a very aggressive timeline for getting the university up and operating.

“From a laconic monarch known for his austerity, the pomp, along with a rare speech by the king himself, was intended to send a strong signal, according to the team charged with building and staffing the new campus within two years. The king is lavishing the institution not only with money, but also with his full political endorsement, intended to stave off internal challenges from conservatives and to win over foreign scholars who doubt that academic freedom can thrive here. The new project is giving hope to Saudi scholars who until the king’s push to reform education in the last few years have endured stagnant research budgets and continue to face extensive government red tape.”

In order to avoid governmental restrictions, the new university is being sponsored by the oil giant Aramco and will be operated as a private university.

“‘Because Aramco is founding the university, I believe it will have freedom,’ said Abdulmalik A. Aljinaidi, dean of the research and consultation institute at King Abdulaziz University, Jidda’s biggest, with more than 40,000 students. ‘For Kaust to succeed, it will have to be free of all the restrictions and bureaucracy we face as a public university.’ Even in the most advanced genetics labs at King Abdulaziz, the women wear full face coverings, and female students can meet with male advisers only in carefully controlled public ‘free zones’ like the library. Scientists there tread carefully when they do research in genetics, stem cells or evolution, for fear of offending Islamic social mores.”

Cambanis noted that religious conservatives are doing everything they can to maintain what they consider “traditional” Islamic values, which generally means keep women under-educated and off the streets. Although he does note, that women have made inroads in the area of education.

“Against this backdrop, said Mr. Khashoggi, the newspaper editor, the
king has conceived of the new university as a liberalizing counterweight, whose success depends on how much it engages the rest of Saudi society. ‘Nobody wants to live in a ghetto, even a nice one,’ Mr. Khashoggi said. ‘As a Saudi, I say, let’s open up.’ Upon completion, the energy-efficient campus will house 20,000 faculty and staff members, students and their families. Social rules will be more relaxed, as they are in the compounds where foreign oil workers live; women will be allowed to drive, for example. But the kingdom’s laws will still apply: Israelis, barred by law from visiting Saudi Arabia, will not be able to collaborate with the university. And one staple of campus life worldwide will be missing: alcohol.”

The King understands he is treading a fine line in establishing and promoting the new university. As the monarch charged with protecting Islam’s holiest places, he is looked upon as the defender of the faith. Opening up a liberal institution of higher education in today’s politically-charged Islamic environment is risky, which is why it will begin primarily as an enclave for foreigners.

“The university president will be a foreigner, and the faculty members and graduate students at first will be overwhelmingly foreign as well. Generous scholarships will finance the 2,000 graduate students; planners expect the Saudi share of the student body to increase over the years as scholarships aimed at promising current undergraduates help groom them for graduate studies at the new university. The university’s entire model is built around partnerships with other international universities, and faculty members are expected to have permanent bases at other research institutions abroad. The university will also rely on a new free-market model. The faculty members will not have tenure, and almost all of them will have joint appointments. While the university will initially be awash in money, its faculty and graduate students will still have to compete with top international institutions for the limited pool of private money that underwrites most graduate research. Suhair el-Qurashi, dean of the private all-female Dar Al Hekma College, often attacked as ‘bad’ and ‘liberal,’ said a vigorous example of free-thinking at the university would embolden the many Saudis who back the king’s quest to reform long-stagnant higher education. ‘The king knows he will face some backlash and bad publicity,’ Ms. Qurashi said. ‘I think the system is moving in the right direction.'”

I agree with Ms. Qurashi. This is a step in the right direction, but it will only be a great step if it serves as a wedge to open up Saudi society to reform and provides a basis for further investment in the future of the Saudi people. Good education is important, but so is the creation of jobs. If a program to create jobs isn’t also established to complement the university, the it will ultimately fail in its greatest purpose.