Saudi Arabia's New Technology University Opens Its Doors

The university, called KAUST, has the Middle East's fastest supercomputer and a multibillion-dollar endowment

2 min read

On an afternoon in late July, Tony Eastham sat in a half-built office outside Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. A table, a few chairs still wrapped in plastic, a desk, and some white settees occupied the room. Outside, the whines and growls of construction heralded the rise of a university in the desert.

These facilities are part of the hardware that makes up the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, an ambitious graduate-level research university with a multibillion-dollar endowment. Known as KAUST, the institution will open its doors to students for the first time this month, and Eastham, the director of laboratories, has quite a few labs left to build. ”What’s happening here is an experiment, one that is only possible because of the resources available in Saudi Arabia,” says Eastham, an IEEE member and until recently an engineering professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The new university is the brainchild of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, and its mission is to extend the country’s technical prowess beyond the domain of oil. Doing so will be an uphill battle: Pupils in Middle East and North African countries score far below the world average on international math and science tests, and even within the region Saudi Arabian students underperform, according to a 2008 World Bank report on education in the Middle East. This is in spite of the fact that Saudi Arabia’s government devoted approximately 30 percent of its annual budget to education through 2003, says the report. Since KAUST’s inception in 2006, education spending has almost certainly skyrocketed.

Once completed, the university will include a top-notch nanofabrication laboratory and a visualization and virtual reality center designed by the University of California, San Diego. The crown jewel is Shaheen, an IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer capable of 222 teraflops and ranked 14th in the world.

The university’s first batch of faculty was recruited by the same people who designed KAUST’s course programs—namely, partner universities such as the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and the University of California, Berkeley. Stanford University professors patterned the curriculum for applied mathematics after their own and then interviewed the prospective faculty, including David Ketcheson, a newly minted doctor of applied math from the University of Washington. ”I never thought I’d graduate and go to Saudi Arabia,” Ketcheson says. ”But what KAUST has invested in applied math I don’t think exists anywhere else in the world.”

The inaugural class of 350 students is drawn predominantly from China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. A committee from the Institute for International Education, which also selects students for the Fulbright program, admitted the students. To accommodate the expectations of newcomers thrust into one of the world’s most restrictive cultures, the campus and its immediately surrounding community will abide by different rules from the rest of the country. Women will be allowed to drive, and male and female students will study together. Students and faculty will be surrounded by most of the trappings of a Western college town. But a vastly different world lies just outside the university gates, where male guardians oversee many aspects of women’s daily life, Internet filtering is extensive, and corporal punishment is a legal tradition. ”It’s going to be a very bewildering experience for just about everybody who arrives on campus,” says David Keyes, KAUST’s chair of mathematical and computer sciences and engineering, formerly of Columbia University.

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