Friday, October 26, 2007

"Saudi MIT" to Dabble in Academic Freedom

According to the International Herald Tribune, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has just unveiled plans for a sprawling new research university some 50 miles outside of the Red Sea port city of Jidda:

Between an oil refinery and the sea, the monarch is building from scratch a graduate research institution that will have one of the 10 largest endowments in the world, worth more than $10 billion.

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.

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."

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 Jumah, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco. "We are no longer keeping pace with the advances of our era."

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.

Such an institution, if successful, would prove to be a tremendous step forward for a country that is badly in need of economic and societal progress alike. As was mentioned in the article, the new institution will require foreign capital of the monetary and intellectual variety alike. Enthusiastically but respectfully offering both of these to this venture could provide the West with an unparalleled opportunity to do some good in Saudi Arabia by influencing events there in a manner other than contentious oil-related ventures. Indeed, it would allow the West to help academic and social freedoms take root in Saudi Arabia by respectable means, avoiding any accusations of covert plots of attempting to foment revolt. Such innovation is badly needed in cloistered Saudi Arabia. It will be most interesting to see what, if anything, emerges from this revolutionary new institution, and if it really helps push the rest of the Saudi education system towards greater academic freedom.

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