jump to navigation

‘A renaissance in Arabic science’…really? 1, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The New Scientist has an article discussing what they describe as ‘the renaissance of Arabic science’. It points to various recent ventures in the GCC as evidence.

  • KAUST – Saudi’s $20 billion gamble
  • Masdar – Abu Dhabi’s sustainable city and “innovation hub”
  • Various Qatari efforts: Qatar Foundation, Qatar Science and Technology Park, Sidra Medical Centre

While these ventures are all well and good, surely a truck-load of money does not a renaissance make.

These countries can build the world’s greatest Universities and Hospitals but unless totemic changes are made to education systems in the region, these will be either staffed by foreigners or will become the most expensive white elephants ever built. In Kuwait, for example, on the Corniche, opposite the British Embassy they built a beautiful new, presumably state-of-the-art research center for the study of (something like) diabetes [it’s been a while since I was there]. It stood finished but unused for years because there was no-one to staff it. Please correct me someone, but I think that it may still be empty to this day.

Masdar is the easiest example to ridicule here. While noble in thought, in practice, it is simply a rather grand green gimmick. The UAE, with the world’s highest CO2 emissions per capita, really don’t especially care about the environment. Masdar ‘the car-less city’ (with what will have to be a whopping great car-park on its outskirts) is beset by problems and management struggles. It is no more in reality a leader of indigenous innovation and research than Kim Jong Il is the democratic leader of North Korea.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to me to be the only places with a real chance of fostering indigenous scientists. Saudi are spurred on by their increasing population and the real need to finds jobs for their younger generation. Without the golden safety net of past generations but with the ability to provide world-class facilities such as KAUST, this mix may prompt young Saudis to meaningfully engage in education. The hamartia for Saudi is, of course, the vagaries of succession and the fear that Naif, the presumed arch-conservative leader, takes the reins of power and interferes with KAUST on (spurious) religious grounds.

While Qatar has the most generous welfare state in the world which mitigates against students seriously studying and applying themselves, there appears to be a genuine intent in the Qatari leadership to induce their younger generations into pursuing meaningful academic pursuits. Their school system is changing root and branch, hopefully instilling the necessary scholarly attitudes in coming generations. In Education City today there are some of the best Universities in the world awaiting suitably qualified Qatari students: potentially quite a lure, particularly for female students whose parents may not be pleased to see them studying in the decadent, morally corrupt West. Perennially, however, the problem for Qatar is that  – crucially – no Qatari really needs to work. The state will take care of them for generations to come.

There are, therefore, enormous challenges before the Arab world even remotely begins to instill a culture of scientific learning never mind excellence and leadership.



Saudi King in ‘co-ed’ picture shock! 8, May 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appears in a picture with women at a conference. As small as this picture or gesture may seem, this is really quite a progressive statement. Not only does it explicitly go against the Saudi rhetoric of the strict separation of men and women, but the majority of the women are not wearing Niqabs and I can even – sacre bleu! – see a few strands of hair.

This is but the latest example of the elderly King’s clear statements on reform in Saudi Arabia. Not only did he inaugurate the Kingdom’s first co-ed educational institution but he decreed that it be free from the depredations of the religious police. Therefore, on campus, women can drive, do not need to wear headscarves and can mingle freely with the opposite sex. When challenged by a senior cleric on this, he responded immediately by sacking him. Another bold move.

The questions that is now on everybodys’ lips is what till happen after Abdullah is no longer King. Although Prince Sultan the Crown Prince practically returned from the dead, it is unlikely that he would take over for his health is surely still too fragile. Instead, Prince Naif, an arch conservative, was made deputy Crown Prince. He is generally accepted to be the logical successor. Whether he would seek to roll back some of the reforms is the million dollar question.

One last quick note: people often innately assume that ‘it must’ be a case of the Saudi rulers holding back their people who ‘automatically’ want more progressive laws because – well – that’s ‘just’ what people want. Not in Saudi Arabia. Overall, I’d be tempted to say that in fact it is the people who are more conservative than the government and it is the average Saudi who is resistant to change. How the younger generations will change this balance is another interesting question.

KAUST: a summary 27, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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 back-tracking of the great and the good in Saudi as soon as it became clear that King Abdullah really wasn’t joking when he said that it would be a ‘liberal’ coeducational  institution.

Before KAUST, segregation was the norm and mixing was haraam. Then KAUST happened, and suddenly mixing turns out to be okay. Al-Shethri opened his mouth. He was sacked. The others got the message.

The new Minister of Justice explained in detail how segregation is a foreign concept and mixing is actually cool. Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of haya’a in Makkah, gave a lengthy interview to Okaz where he basically said that there is nothing wrong with mixing and those who oppose it are opposing Sharia. Meanwhile, his organization continue to terrorize people in other parts of the country.

Clown Mohammed al-Nujaimi before KAUST was inaugurated stressed the importance of segregation in education, something he described as one of the fundamentals on which the Saudi state was built. Few weeks later, after al-Shethri was sacked, he took a full U-turn.

Problem is, apologists like Jamal Khashoggi now have to make up lies to make this sounds normal. Mixing at KAUST is very restricted, he says, that a Venezuelan student can’t have his Mexican female friend over at his place.

Is that true, Nathan? I know you threw a nice Thanksgiving party earlier this year, and from the pics I can see you had some girls over. I hope you didn’t get any trouble after that party.

So confusion prevails. In the past we were told mixing is sinful. Now we are told it is alright. Those who don’t want to appear contradicted talk about good mixing and bad mixing. Are we supposed to believe the “mixers,” the “segregationists,” or the “hypocrites”? Such a dilemma…

The Sheikh strikes back 7, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

Supporters of Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri who was fired for criticizing the liberal policies at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology have hacked the Al Watan website and posted a picture of the Sheikh and a message supporting him and lambasting his opponents.

Frankly, we do not know the difference between the deviant sects of militants and the fifth column (…) of liberals; they both defame scholars and describe them with the most offensive statements…O Sheikh Shithri, we are on your side and faithful to you, but the voice of hypocrisy today is the one that resonates most in our press.

I am always profoundly struck at the cheek of such people: bemoaning and complaining about modernization via hacking a website. Irony, anyone?

KAUST: criticisms and its future 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.

Syrian student ban on KAUST’s new supercomputer 8, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Saudi King Abdullah’s latest pet project, the much hyped, well funded and so far independent and autonomous King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) has been grabbing headlines throughout the world. One of their boasts was that the University would be equipped with one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, nicknamed Peregrine. Scholars from distinguished Universities such as Stanford, Oxford and Cornell, to name a few, would have access to Peregrine as partners in this endeavour.

In an odd but somehow unsurprising turn of events it transpires that, according to Arabian Business 15  Syrian students at KAUST will be denied access to Peregrine at America’s behest because of their ongoing Syrian embargo. Such a clause was apparently inserted into the IBM-KAUST memorandum of understanding (MOU) taking the decision out of the hands of the University.

However, with the recent visit of King Abdullah to Syria and gently mooted notions of some kind of Syrian-US rapprochement, lifting such a ban could be used as a simple and relatively cheap American sign of support and good will in the near future. Indeed, it is hardly as if it is a particularly effective ban that impinges in any way, shape or from on the powers that be in Damascus.

Overall, this situation is, however, only a small blip in KAUST’s otherwise impressive start. One must hope, therefore, that KAUST can, overall, resist such changes and maintain (or rather build up) its international reputation and not be dragged down by niggly but nevertheless pertinent issues restricting access, freedoms and the independence of the institution as a whole.

Abdullah fires KAUST critic 5, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , ,


Saudi King Abdullah has fired the recent outspoken critic of his newest project, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST). Sheikh Saad Al Shethry decried the University where sexes can mix together freely, women can drive and do not have to wear the Hijab. Perhaps worst of all for Al Shethry, the curriculum itself along with the University as a whole is outwith the remit of the Religious Authorities.

Abdullah’s quick removal of this vocal critic is a strong sign of his intent to protect the integrity of the University. However, as I said in an earlier blog posting, the real challenge comes when the presumed successor – the arch Conservative Prince Nayef – takes over. If he carries on with his Conservative outlook that has epitomized his time in the Ministry of the Interior, it seems unlikely that the University will retain such protection.

New Saudi co-ed Uni: the backlash begins 2, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , ,

No crystal ball was needed to predict that it would only be a matter of time before the religious backlash against the Kingdom’s newest, best funded, best stocked and only University with tenuous world-class aspirations began. Gulf News reports that Sheikh Sa’ad Bin Nasser Al Shethri, a member of Saudi’s powerful Supreme Committee of Islamic Scholars, has denounced the coeducational nature of the University.

“Mixing is a great sin and a great evil…When men mix with women, their hearts burn and they will be diverted from their main goal, which is… education.”

One feels obliged to mention that in the Universities which have garnered the most Nobel Prizes (Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia…) have – obviously – coeducational classes and it seems to do them well…not such a bad system to emulate one might think. However, logic has never been (and will never be) the strongest suit for these relics of religious zealotry.

I fear that it is, again, only a matter of time before the religious authorities strangle whatever progressive moves have been made out of this University.

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

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.