The New York Times reports:
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.As the Times goes on to say, this graduate research center will have one of the 10 largest endowments in the world.
The Times report continues:
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.
To accomplish this, as the Times notes, the Saudi king put Saudi Aramco its oil company in charge as opposed to the Education Ministry which would have opposed such integration and openness on religious grounds. As the Times continues:
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.”. . .
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.
While the Times report had plenty of skepticism, there was also some cautious optimism:
“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.”. . .
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.”