Update on Education in Saudi Arabia

Stephen DeAngelis

October 19, 2009

Nearly two years ago in a post entitled Education in Saudi Arabia, I wrote about King Abdullah’s multi-billion dollar investment in a state-of-the university focused on science and technology. I noted that the King was trying to recapture the glory days when Islamic culture produced great poetry, architecture, and mathematics. I also noted that it was a shame that the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, had to be walled off from the rest of Saudi society in order to gain a toehold in that country. Late last month, after two years of around-the-clock construction, the King inaugurated his showpiece institution [“Saudi Arabia’s billion-dollar boost to education,” by Andrew England, Financial Times, 23 September 2009. England writes:

“Up to now Saudi Arabia’s education system has been a traditional bastion of influence for the religious establishment, with critics accusing the curriculums of fostering intolerance while bemoaning the lack of emphasis on sciences and other technical subjects. In 2002, maths and sciences accounted for 20 per cent of total courses in the country’s primary system, compared with 31 per cent for religious and moral studies. At lower secondary level the figure was 24 per cent for each category. The hope is that, buoyed by a $10bn (€6.8bn, £6.1bn) endowment fund – one of the world’s largest – Kaust will help the kingdom develop a world-class scientific centre to accelerate the nation’s modernisation and ultimately help reduce its dependency on the highs and lows of oil prices.”

The King hopes to attract students from around the world as well as the best and brightest Saudi students. In the first tranche of students, “about a third of [them] are Saudis and about five of Kaust’s professors are from the kingdom.” England also reports that KAUST has signed partnership agreements with “a long list of international institutions, including MIT and the universities of Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford, Tokyo and Cambridge.” He goes on to describe the campus and hopes for its future:

“The first 400 students have moved in to the 36 sq km campus, which nestles up against the shores of the Red Sea 80km north of Jeddah, and a 75-member faculty has been established, with Kaust luring professors from round the world with high salaries and promises of deep pockets and the latest in research technology. It is hoped that by 2020 Kaust will be home to a faculty of 225 and 2,000 students, with a total of 15,000 people living within the university’s palm-tree-lined boundaries. Nadhmi al-Nasr, Kaust’s interim executive vice-president, is already talking about turning dreams into reality, with the lofty goals of transforming the world’s largest oil producer into a big exporter of solar energy and discovering the secrets of growing wheat on land irrigated with salt water. If Kaust were able to make such breakthroughs it would ‘change not only the economy of Saudi Arabia but the map of the world’, Mr Nasr says.”

Like the rest of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia is facing a youth bulge that could mean trouble if a growing economy doesn’t provide them with jobs. One of the purposes of KAUST is to train Saudis to manage a diverse Saudi economy that doesn’t rely primarily on petro-dollars.

“Improving education – from the content of the curriculum to quality of teachers – is deemed critical to development, both social and economic. In recent years, the government has pledged billions of dollars towards raising standards across the board and Kaust is the flagship project for higher education reforms. But experts say the return on that investment has often been poor and change in the kingdom is hampered by resistance from the religious establishment and bureaucratic barriers. Officials hope Kaust will be different, in that it will be free from the influences and interference of clerics and a government bureaucracy often accused of inefficiency and incompetence. … Officials insist the institution will have full academic freedom with the political backing of King Abdullah, who describes the university as a new ‘house of wisdom’ for the Arab and Muslim worlds. It will also offer an environment where men and women can work and research together – in contrast to the segregation women face in most aspects of Saudi society.”

It didn’t take long for clerics to challenge the King’s plan for KAUST. The King, for his part, responded quickly and backed his promises with action [“Saudi king sacks cleric critic of university,’ by Abeer Allam, Financial Times, 6 October 2009].

“In a rare public showdown between Saudi Arabia’s monarch and the religious establishment, King Abdullah has dismissed a top cleric who said mixing male and female students at a new flagship university was ‘evil’ and a ‘great sin’. Saudi state television reported … that the king ‘relieved’ Sheikh Saad al-Shethri of his duties as a member of the influential Council of Religious Scholars, a body that shapes the religious discourse of the oil-rich kingdom. Sheikh Saad, answering a question from a caller on a television interview last week, said scholars should vet the curriculum at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) to make sure that it was sharia-compliant and to prevent the teaching of alien notions such as evolution. His remarks drew condemnation from almost all Saudi newspaper editors. In lengthy editorials, they accused him of ignoring the scientific role of the university and of trying to foment sedition and damage Saudi national pride. … Although the backlash from the religious establishment was expected, the king’s swift reaction took many people by surprise and may signal that he is running out of patience with the clerics. Since King Abdullah succeeded his half-brother in 2005, senior clerics have resisted his proposals for judicial, educational and social reforms.”

The King’s actions are a good first step in helping reform Saudi society. If Saudi Arabia is to achieve the greatness desired by the King, Saudi women must take their place beside Saudi men in helping build the future. Undoubtedly, conservative clerics will continue to resist such reforms.

“The religious establishment imposes its austere interpretation of Islam on all aspects of life in the kingdom and enforces its social mores in the public arena via religious police or mutawa. Strict segregation between unrelated men and women is kept in the workplace, restaurants, government offices and schools. At universities, male professors cannot stand before a classroom of Saudi women, and classes taught by male lecturers are given via closed circuit television. Many Saudi reformists, frustrated with the slow pace of reform, complain that the king is too lenient with the conservative forces. But the king has to strike a balance between reformist and the conservative powers in Saudi Arabia, with the balance tipping most of the time towards the conservatives.”

The royal family has always relied on the backing of clerics to remain in power and it prides itself on being the protector of Islam’s holiest sites. The King’s removal of an influential cleric was a bold action given current circumstances. Within the walls of the KAUST complex, Saudi women already enjoy unprecedented freedom [“In Saudi Arabia, a Campus Built as a ‘Beacon of Tolerance,’ by Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, 9 October 2009].

“On this gleaming high-tech campus edged by the Red Sea, May Qurashi crossed a barrier the other day. She played a game on PlayStation with some male fellow students. Her best friend, Sarah al-Aqeel, is also reaching for the forbidden. She’s getting her driver’s license. Under Saudi Arabia’s strict constraints, Saudi women like Qurashi and Aqeel may neither mingle with men nor drive. But at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology … men and women take classes together. Women are not required to wear traditional black head-to-toe abayas or veil their faces — and they can get behind a steering wheel.”

In his inaugural speech, the King “declared that ‘faith and science cannot compete except in unhealthy souls’ and that ‘scientific centers that embrace all peoples are the first lines of defense against extremists.’ He said he hoped the university, known as KAUST, would become ‘a beacon of tolerance.'” The first chapters of this story are just being written. The developments of the past couple of weeks may someday be pointed to as the turning point in Saudi Arabia’s future. If KAUST is an example of that future, it could be a bright one indeed.