A bridge ... or a ghetto?

Next week sees the official opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia,described as “a bridge between world cultures”.

The university, intended to promote international research, has been established by the king outside the control of the education ministry (and its oppressive religious influence).

Unlike other Saudi universities, it will have no gender segregation and it promises to be free of the restrictions and bureaucracy that hamper research elsewhere in the kingdom.

“This international research university is a contribution from Saudi Arabia to promote knowledge,” the king told a cabinet meeting on Monday. “KAUST is a big cultural achievement, not only for Saudi Arabia but for the whole world.”

The hope is that it will boost Saudi Arabia’s scientific and technological development and also have a positive impact on the educational system more generally.

But this is where the doubts creep in. The 9,000-acre campus is near Thuwal (on the Red Sea cost 50 miles north of Jeddah) which until recently was just a fishing village, and some fear it will just become a luxurious ghetto of liberalism, cut off from the rest of Saudi society.

“While KAUST enjoys almost unlimited funds, sophisticated equipment and is run by an independent board,” Reuters notes, “most Saudi schools and universities have curriculums still dominated by religion, despite reform efforts begun after the September 11 attacks of 2001.” It continues:

Analysts and diplomats say the KAUST launch is a step in the right direction, but state education will remain inefficient unless the government starts a radical overhaul.

"We need to change the mindset of the teaching concept. We need to review all our educational practices... We also need to be consistent with the needs of modern education and market requirements," said Saudi columnist Abdullah al-Alami.

Ghanem Nuseibeh, a senior analyst at Political Capital in Dubai, agreed: "The bigger problem remains primary education."

Despite its immense financial resources, the parameters of Saudi school and university education are governed by religious strictures and many subjects are off-limits for women to study.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 September 2009.