Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Two Saudi Arabias": More on the new Saudi University

The $12.5 billion King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is moving ahead (see an earlier post about the university endowment here). From the New York Times:

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.”

Ok...this is a good starting point. So how is this university going to function in the ultra-conservative environment of Saudi Arabia:

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.

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.

This is good for the university, but isn't it frustrating for the society? The King clearly knows (at least from this example) the value of academic freedom and a less oppressed environment for the development of a healthy intellectual environment. Why can't he apply at least some of these ideals to the society as a whole? Heck, he can start by at least allowing women to drive. And what lesson can we draw from the fact that the King had to cut his own education ministry out of the loop for the development of KAUST? The King must think there must be something wrong with the way the ministry uses its authority. And sure enough:

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.

Furthermore, ideas simply don't come out of isolation. The society itself must also have some reasonable degree of freedom:

Even in Jidda, the kingdom’s most liberal city, a status rooted in its history as a trading outpost, change comes slowly. This month the governor allowed families to celebrate the post-Ramadan Id al-Fitr holiday in public, effectively allowing men and women to socialize publicly on the same streets for the first time.

The religious police were accused of beating a man to death because he was suspected of selling alcohol. Conservatives have fended off efforts by women to secure the right to drive or to run for office, although women have made considerable gains in access to segregated education and workplaces.

Hopefully, KAUST will have an impact on the larger society as a whole:

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.”

Read the full story here. (thanks, Marina for providing the link to the story)

Read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about KAUST here.