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Saudi looks to the future, opens coed university

Academic focus is solar energy, desalination

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Saudi Arabia’s new $10 billion, state-of-the-art science and technology university welcomes the country’s first coed student body Wednesday in one of the king’s keystone attempts to power his country into the 21st century with renewable energy and social reform.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology on the Red Sea coast boasts one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, state-of-the-art “green” technologies and a team of top scientists timed its launch for Saudi Arabia's National Day.

“This international research university is a contribution from Saudi Arabia to promote knowledge,” King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud told a meeting of the Council of Ministers at al-Safa Palace last week.

The energy-efficient university, equipped with the latest technology and some of the world's top scientists, is set to break both scientific as well as social barriers. And with one of the world’s largest educational endowments it hopes to attract students and faculty from around the world with funding for 2,000 graduate students.

The 20,000 faculty, staff, students and their families are expected to live on campus, the first where men and women can mingle freely.

The university accepted 817 students from 61 countries from more than 7,000 applications, and about 15 percent of the incoming student body is women.

“The idea behind this university, if it succeeds, is to be very pioneering because the Saudi society by nature is a closed one, and if we look at universities in other countries like the United States we find them to be diverse and international,” Abdulrahman al-Rabesh, a consultant and engineer with the company, told Al Arabiya.

“I believe in mixed-gender education because it puts women on equal footing with men,” he said, adding that the idea of mixed-gender education is not completely new to Saudi universities since some medical schools offer coed classes.

This international research university is a contribution from Saudi Arabia to promote knowledge

King Abdullah

Relaxed social rules

Although the kingdom’s laws still apply, social rules will be more relaxed - like in the compounds where foreign oil workers live – according to several international newspapers.

Women will not have to cover themselves and will also be allowed to drive, according to reports. There will also be a movie theater – usually forbidden in the kingdom -- at the commercial center, according to the university’s website.

Many Saudi academics have welcomed a mixed campus in hopes it will increase competition and competitiveness.

“The king knows he will face some backlash and bad publicity,” the dean of the Dar al-Hekma woman’s college, Suhair el-Qurashi, told the New York Times. She said that such free-thinking would encourage Saudis who support the king’s interest in reforming higher education. “I think the system is moving in the right direction,” she added.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia ranked 93rd out of 129 in UNESCO’s global index assessing quality of education in 2008.

The new university is the latest in a string of initiatives by the reform-minded Saudi king. In February he appointed the first-ever woman to a ministerial position, selecting Norah al-Fayez to be deputy education minister for female education affairs.

Infrastructure investment

Saudi spent more than 10 billion riyals ($2.6 billion) to build the 36-square-kilometer (14 square mile) campus on the Red Sea coast about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Jeddah.

"Two years ago it was nothing but sand and sea. Today there is one of the best infrastructures for research," said KAUST president Choon Fong Shih, a research engineer who helped turn the National University of Singapore into a world-renowned research institution.

The king hired the state-owned ARAMCO oil company, rather than the education ministry, to build the campus, develop the curriculum and handle outreach.

“ARAMCO was able to cultivate a new idea that did not exist in Saudi universities and that is the idea of a diverse, international university,” said ARAMCO’s Rabesh.

Two years ago it was nothing but sand and sea. Today there is one of the best infrastructures for research

KAUST president Choon Fong Shih

He said that only five percent of Saudi Arabia’s students come from outside the country, so the challenge was to design a university that would attract foreigners. To this end the university has five-year partnerships worth more than $25 million with several world famous universities like the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University and the University of Texas.

“ARAMCO designed the university based on a different concept and that is to attract competent and gifted students and instructors to create a new environment that people are not familiar with; one that brings different learning cultures together in the quest for scientific knowledge,” Rabesh explained.

He said ARAMCO’s role and relationship with the university would be limited in the future.

“Building the university is not the important thing; what is more important is building the Saudi citizen through such universities,” he said.

Meeting environmental challenges

The main goal of the university is to meet the environmental challenges of the 21st century by developing new solar energy and water desalination technologies. Its backers hope such advances could help turn the Gulf's deserts into rich green areas with high yielding crops.

"What distinguishes KAUS as a global university is that professors have been selected from around the world, and admission is open to students from various parts of the world, focusing on graduate studies and scientific research in the field of technical disciplines, not just theory,” Dr. Abdullah al-Ghamdi, head of the water research and development at KACST, told Al Arabiya.

“This is a much needed development for the Arab and third world since there is no ongoing support for the problems plaguing these regions."

"KAUST will also have a positive impact on the economy by developing knowledge that can be sold," he added

Building the university is not the important thing; what is more important is building the Saudi citizen through such universities

Abdulrahman al-Rabesh, ARAMCO

The university already has a group of 12 scientists from six different countries who have received five-year grants to conduct research on a wide range of challenges facing concerning Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region.

KAUST offers master’s and doctoral degrees in applied mathematics and computational science, bioscience, chemical and biological engineering, chemical science, computer science, earth science and engineering, electrical engineering, environmental science and engineering, marine science and engineering, materials science and engineering, and mechanical engineering.

"It will constitute an important addition to Saudi Arabia's comprehensive national plan for science and technology,” Dr. Mohammad Ibrahim al-Suwail, president of King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), told Al Arabiya. KACST and KAUST already have plans to hold two workshops dealing with policy issues and scientific research management, he added.


(Mohammed Alyousy contributed reporting from Riyadh and Hayyan Nayouf and Courtney C. Radsch contributed reporting from Dubai. This article was written by Ms. Radsch)