Western-Style University Planned in Saudi Arabia

Somehow I managed to miss this exciting story from October: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/26/world/middleeast/26saudi.html?ei=5088&en=1b746b847cf2bd17&ex=1351051200&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&pagewanted=all

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdallah is planning on building from scratch a world-class graduate research institution, which will be called King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust.

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.

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.

Old-fashioned values even seeped into the carefully staged groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday 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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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 don’t even have anything snarky to say. This is the best news I’ve and most hopeful sign I’ve seen come out of Saudi Arabia since I started paying attention.

Oh, whoops, on a subsequent reading I noticed how this:

…and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome…

clashes with this:

…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…

So close. Okay, but other than that…I mean, still, it’s a step in the right direction.

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1 Comment

Filed under arabian, arabist, Saudi Arabia

One response to “Western-Style University Planned in Saudi Arabia

  1. Rob

    Wow, that’s nuts about the page ripped out of the Economist. Funny thing is, they could probably just go home and read it on the Internet.

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