Constructing knowledge/spaces in the Middle East: KAUST and beyond

Further to our recent entries on Qatar Education City, NYU Abu Dhabi, and ‘Liberal education venturing abroad: American universities in the Middle East‘, Wednesday’s Financial Times and today’s New York Times both have informative pieces about Saudi Arabia’s attempt to rapidly construct a new “MIT” in the desert. The Institute of the Future’s informative blog, which we happily just discovered, also has an illuminating profile of this development. And also see Beerkens’ Blog for another illuminating analysis.

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The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a US$12.5 billion university, is being built from scratch, with a formal groundbreaking ceremony on 21 October 2007. The development of new universities, and foreign campuses or programs in Saudia Arabia, is clearly an indicator of a desire for significant economic and cultural shifts amongst select elites. This said the development process is an incredibly complicated one, and riddled with a series of tensions, mutually supporting objectives, and some challenging contradictions. It is also a very geographic one, with supporters of such developments seeking to create new and qualitatively different spaces of knowledge consumption, production and circulation. The Financial Times had this to say:

Kaust plans to bring western standards of education to a Saudi institution amid an environment of academic freedom. The university, loosely based on Aramco’s gated community where the kingdom’s social mores are watered down, is set to push the boundaries of gender segregation in an education system where men and women very rarely meet.

The university plans to guarantee academic freedom, bypassing any religious pressure from conservative elements, by forming a board of trustees that will use recently approved bylaws to protect the independence of the university.

“It’s a given that academic freedom will be protected,” says Nadhmi al-Nasr, an Aramco executive who is Kaust’s interim president.

His assertion has yet to be tested but the mix of academic freedom and social liberalism could spark criticism despite the king’s patronage.

Dar al-Hikma, a private women’s college in Jeddah, has faced trouble from those who reject social liberalism. “Many have opposed us but this is different – the king is behind Kaust,” says the Dr Suhair al-Qurashi, the college’s dean.

At a broader scale KAUST is also being designed to generate an interdependent relationship with King Abdullah Economic City, a US$27 billion mixed use development project that is situated near the university. And at an even broader scale KAUST is designed to help transform the structure of the Saudi economy. Nadhmi A. Al-Nasr (KAUST’s interim president) put it this way:

“It is the vision of King Abdullah to have this university as a turning point in higher education,” he said. “Hopefully, it will act as a catalyst in transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge economy, by directly integrating research produced at the university into our economy.”

As is the case with other new universities being developed in the 1990s and 2000s (e.g., Singapore Management University‘s development was strongly shaped by Wharton faculty, especially Janice R. Bellace), the Saudis are acquiring intellectual guidance and advice from a variety of non-local academics and administrators, including a veritable Who’s Who of senior university officials from around the world. Link here for further media and blog coverage of KAUST.

The myriad of changes in the Middle Eastern higher ed landscape are ideal research topics, and they are more than deserving of attention given their scale, and potential for impact, success and/or failure. But who is conducting such research? We might be wrong but not a lot of substantial analysis seems to have been written up and published to date. If you are reading this and you are doing such work let us know – we’d be happy to profile your writings here in GlobalHigherEd, and/or engage in some international comparative dialogue.

Kris Olds

One thought on “Constructing knowledge/spaces in the Middle East: KAUST and beyond

  1. Pingback: From Singapore to Saudi Arabia with an eye on Malaysia « GlobalHigherEd

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