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Saudi’s new hi-tech University: both too much and not enough 25, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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One advantage of covering the Gulf region is that there is rarely a dull day. The sheer pace of development means that more or less every week there is some new mega-project of some description announced, unveiled or – in these more constrained times – cancelled.

This week saw the opening of Saudi Arabia’s newest University. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), based north of Jeddah, is ground braking. Not only will it be the first public space in the Kingdom where men and women are allowed to mingle freely, women can drive and do not have to wear the Hijab but also this University aspires to remain outwith the sphere of influence of the clerics. Whilst this is undoubtedly a reformist move and may even be described as somewhat revolutionary, there are, as ever, caveats.

First, whilst the rights established here for women are a huge leap forward, at the moment only 15% of the student body is female; it is a tentative start. However, this percentage seems certain to increase. Female students across the region are outstripping their male rivals for the top prizes in just about all subjects. Unless there is some draconian policy of keeping the ratio of male to females as it is now, it is sure to change.

Second, whilst at the moment, the religious establishment appear to have been successfully repelled from interference in KAUST’s practices, one must wonder exactly how long this will last. This University, where the feared religious police are not allowed to operate, will be the beacon issue for conservatives. Whilst to some the fact that a woman can drive and can mix freely with men might seem to be a trivial matter, this is a giant step forward for such a conservative Kingdom. Indeed, although there has been a lot of pressure to drag Saudi’s educational doctrine and practices out of the dark ages in recent years, the conservative elements are well anchored in society and flex their muscles from time to time. For example, they forced the cancellation of the Jeddah International Film Festival in December of last year; cinemas, of course, being mostly illegal in Saudi Arabia.

What is worse for those looking or hoping for a less staunchly conservative, Wahhabi or puritanical Saudi Arabia is that the man that most experts believe will take over from the 85-year-old ailing King Abdullah, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, is as squarely conservative as they come. His views towards political opening, woman’s rights and Muslim minorities are uncompromising and staunchly conservative. More to the point, his support for the religious police is reputed to be strong.

Under his watch, unless he performs a 100% about turn, he cannot be expected to carry on implementing any reforms in the Kingdom. On the contrary, pessimists fear that he may seek to roll back some of the reformist gains. If this were the case, then KAUST’s liberal policies would surely be the prime target.

All this is in stark contrast to similar openings and announcements in Qatar. They too realise that they need to educate their young people to a high degree so that they can take part in their economy and, to put it bluntly, not be solely a burden on society. Their flagship project (imaginatively called Education City) will be, like KAUST, full of state-of-the-are facilities when it is completed. This includes the Sidra Medical & Research Centre, which was funded with a whopping $7.9bn endowment from Qatar’s philanthropic Qatar Foundation. This facility joins a host of other Western Universities on the same campus including Georgetown School of Foreign Service and Cornell Medical School. One key attribute to note is that these establishments have not lowered their entry standards for the Qatari market. This is, of course, unlike so many other Universities in the Gulf where entry standards are massively diluted and lowered.

Yet, this is something that can be done in Qatar. Such a system would be much more difficult to implement in Saudi or, for example, Kuwait. In these countries where religious or political pressures alter the educational curriculum, education itself suffers massively. A recent UNESCO survey highlighted in the Daily Star has Saudi Arabia down in 93rd place (out of only 129) for overall educational quality. Considering just how rich a country Saudi Arabia is, this is a shameful statistic. In Kuwait, to give a more concrete example, students cannot be taught about the Holocaust in any meaningful way; teachers are proscribed from doing so. Yet, these very same students could easily sit down in an exam, set in the UK, and be asked about this. This is but one example of a plethora of minor and major instances of political or religious interference that directly affects the pupils.

Saudi Arabia (or Kuwait, if their Parliament could stop arguing for any length of time) can invest as much as they want in Higher Education. They can build the swankiest campuses, (try to) hire the best scientists and faculty, buy the latest equipment and give it all to students for free, but if they do not attempt some kind of reform in the earlier stages of education, the latent potential of their students and the facilities will never be fulfilled.

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