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KAUST: criticisms and its future 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Ibrahim Al Rubaish, a member of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has released a tape decrying Saudi King Abdullah’s decision to allow mixed sex education at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah. The recording treads a familiar and predictable path accusing Abdullah of violating Sharia law and failing in his duty to protect Islam.

Al Rubaish himself is quite interesting. Interred at Guantanamo until his release into Saudi’s custody back in 2006, he entered their much vaunted rehabilitation programme until he left and promptly fled to Yemen and joined up with what passes for Al Qaeda there.

He is neither the first nor will he be the last to criticize King Abdullah’s $7bn pet project. More or less as soon as it was opened it was heavily criticised from within Saudi Arabia for – amongst other things – barring Saudi’s religious police from entering its perimeters. Therefore, in the compound, women can drive, do not need to cover their hair and will mix generally with the men, all of which is prohibited outside KAUST.

As I have discussed before, KAUST’s future is, as far as I see it, uncertain. Despite having world-class technology such as one of the world’s fastest super-computers, getting staff to move to Saudi Arabia to use it may well be a problem. Agreements with, for example, Oxford University and Stanford University, will get scientists and researchers there for relatively short-term stints, but this is hardly building a base of qualified staff for the long-term. Indeed, despite the no doubt high salaries, overall, I still expect that they will struggle.

Of greater concern to KAUST is, or at least should be, the thorny issue of Saudi’s succession. The current Crown Prince is, it seems, all but dead. I do not mean this in an unkind way, but simply that his death has been expected for some time now and reported on some occasions. Therefore, Prince Naif, the 34 year veteran of the Ministry of the Interior was made Second Deputy Prime Minister in March 2009. It appears that this position was made to simplify the route of succession, given Crown Prince Sultan’s severely ill-health.

Prince Naif is, however, generally believed to be something of an arch-conservative which, when said in a Saudi Arabian context, ought to give one pause for thought. His tenure at the head of the Ministry of the Interior has seen him, for example, crackdown repeatedly on Saudi’s Shia minority whom, I believe, greatly fear him coming to power. I have not come across an account of his personal views on the KAUST project but if (as seems reasonable) they can be extrapolated from his other long documented conservative tendencies, then it is safe to say he would disapprove.

However, this is not to say that he would automatically clamp down on KAUST were he to ascend to the throne. There is a powerful argument running through ‘Saudi studies’ which dictates that Saudi’s leader’s policies are shaped more by Saudi’s situation than by their own personal proclivities. King Abdullah’s reforms are, therefore, as much if not more due to the mandates of, for example, the international situation post 9/11 and Saudi’s ever more pressing need to seriously address their lack of top-class educational institutions as it was because of his own ‘liberal’ tendencies.

The truth, as ever, no doubt falls somewhere in the middle. So far, it does seem unlikely – though far, far from impossible – that the unquestionably negative and conservative signal that clamping down on KAUST would send for would-be academics as well as for those on a governmental level might stay Naif’s hand. This is, of course, pure speculation but that is almost beside the point. The very fact that this concern is a factor worth discussing is, in and of itself, a perfect example of the uncertainty that will, in addition to structural and other issues, continue to make KAUST’s job of recruiting, teaching and excelling all the harder.

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1. KAUST: a summary « The Gulf blog - 27, December 2009

[…] I have commented many a time on Saudi’s new high-tech University (here, here, here and here) but Saudi Jeans offers a pithy, concise summary of the state of play so far, concentrating on the […]


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