When King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud officially opened the science university near Jeddah that bears his name, he was not handed the traditional golden pair of scissors and asked to cut a ribbon, but instead was guided to a touch-sensitive screen to begin the inauguration. A light touch of the screen later, fireworks exploded above Jeddah and the Red Sea coast to celebrate the opening of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust). 

The Saudi monarch is not known for courting publicity. But Kaust’s opening in September was accompanied by considerable fanfare. Leaders including Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain and King Abdullah II of Jordan were in attendance.

The Saudi authorities certainly have something to shout about. Covering 36 square kilometres, Kaust boasts facilities that even the most advanced Ivy League universities can only dream of. A fully immersive virtual reality facility, Cornea, allows researchers to study everything from molecules to geology in 3D. Its imaging labs will also contain, among other things, 10 advanced nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. And at the heart of the $2.6bn research university is the fastest supercomputer in the Middle East, in the Shaheen facility.

Key facts

  • 2020 – Year when Kaust will be operating at full strength
  • 222 trillion – Number of arithmetic calculations Kaust’s supercomputer can carry out in a second
  • 15 – Number of high-profile academics on Kaust’s international advisory council

Source: MEED

“One of our main objectives at Kaust is to be a catalyst in the process of transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge economy,” says -Nadhmi al-Nasr, executive vice-president of the university. “Our pride is in serving the current and future generations of our nation.”

Beneath the patriotic rhetoric is a sense of personal achievement. Besides lending his name to the project, King Abdullah has been closely associated with the development of Kaust, perhaps the most overt symbol of the more liberal stance he has adopted during his five-year reign. Unlike most other parts of the kingdom, men and women will be allowed to mingle freely at Kaust, and women will not be required to wear headscarves on campus.

The king himself made the link explicit in his inauguration speech. “Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists who speak the language of hatred,” he said. “Undoubtedly, scientific centres that embrace all peoples are the first line of defence against extremists. Today, this university will become a house of wisdom…a beacon of tolerance.”

While this is a major departure for a Saudi institution, Al-Nasr says the university will be judged primarily on its academic standards.

“Kaust is not in the business of leading or creating social change,” he says. “The focus is on what Kaust is bringing to Saudi Arabia in terms of education and the economy.” 

Many of Kaust’s researchers will specialise in areas that have practical applications within major Saudi industries, such as energy and petrochemicals. Working in partnership with the Higher Education Ministry, the university’s main developer is state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco, which helped build the campus.

The company is now managing the campus, about 80 kilometres north of Jeddah, on the site of what was once the fishing village of Thuwal. Aramco staff also occupy some of the main academic posts at the university, although these are temporary appointments that will gradually be filled by academics.

Strategic partners

“In the future, Aramco will gradually become a major strategic partner rather than manager of Kaust, particularly in areas of research such as the earth sciences,” says Al-Nasr. “We also expect similar alliances with companies such as Sabic.”

From the 3D visualisation centre to the spectrometers, Kaust employs much of the technology already used by companies such as Aramco and the US’ Dow Chemical Company. But its real advantage will be processing power. The Shaheen supercomputer has a 222-teraflop capacity. This means it can perform 222 trillion arithmetic calculations every second. Other Saudi institutions will be linked to Kaust via a proposed 10-gigabits-a-second academic network known as the Saudi Arabian Advanced Research & Education Network (Saren).

Yet all this impressive hardware is only as good as the staff using it. Saudi Arabia has, in the past, built a few state-of-the-art universities and hospitals that have ended up as white elephants, usually due to poorly trained staff and bad administration.

“Our main focus in Kaust is to attract the best talents in the world,” says Al-Nasr. “On the academic side, we specifically went out to recruit the best students we could find, and where students might lack certain skills to achieve their best at Kaust, we intend to train them. For example, Saudi students with poor English will be trained to ensure they are on a par with others and can compete.”

As a graduate-level research university, Kaust currently offers two degrees, which are awarded by one of the university’s three academic divisions: chemical and life science and engineering; mathematical and computer sciences and engineering; and physical sciences and engineering.

“One of our main objectives is to be a catalyst in transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge economy”

Nadhmi al-Nasr, executive vice-president, Kaust

The MS degree can serve as a graduate degree in its own right, or act as preparation for a doctorate. Kaust’s PhD degree is typically three to four years, and requires original research together with a research dissertation.

Kaust has set its standards high, as shown in the co-operation agreements it has signed. Two American universities, Stanford University and the University of California in Berkeley, as well as Imperial College London, have signed partnership agreements with the university and have advised on its curriculum.

Many Kaust faculty staff have also been recruited from the same calibre of universities in Europe and the US. Kaust’s president, Choong Fong Shih, joined Kaust after nine years as president of the National University of Singapore.

More than 380 graduates are now studying at the university. The plan is to take this number to 2,000 by 2020, and to triple the number of faculty staff to about 230 over the same period.

“So far, they seem to have got both the hardware and the human software right,” says one European academic who was formerly based in the kingdom.

“The question is how much pressure they will come under from the conservatives. Will they be asked to segregate classes, to put in quotas for Saudi students, that sort of thing? The steady drip of conservative pressure can be felt in universities across the Middle East.”

Political analysts also note that, while King Abdullah is liberal by Saudi standards, many in Riyadh are not. Saudi society has also become increasingly polarised. The opening of Kaust comes after five years of painstaking education reforms in Saudi Arabia that have caused some friction. And the university will not be up to full strength for another 10 years, which is a long time even in Saudi politics, where change is viewed with caution at best.

Global specialist

The proof of Kaust’s success will be in its academic results. By 2020, says Al-Nasr, Kaust hopes to be a leading global specialist in oil engineering, earth sciences, solar energy research, water desalination and catalysis – all areas of applied science that resonate with companies such as Aramco and Sabic.

“My dream is that one day in 2020, Kaust will be mentioned in the same breath as MIT or Cambridge,” he says. “We want to be a worthy partner of the top 10 universities in the world.”

Kaust has architecture that matches its aspirations. Designed by US-based architect HOK International, which has worked on public buildings including California State University and an airport in Indianapolis, Kaust has as one of its most outstanding features a 60-metre-high tower that guards the breakwater sheltering the university’s marina. The honeycomb structure is intended to be a contemporary take on a lighthouse. Given the university’s ambitions to galvanise Saudi society, there can be few more potent symbols than such a beacon.

Kaust fields of study

  • Applied mathematics and computational science
  • Bioscience
  • Chemical and biological engineering
  • Chemical science
  • Computer science
  • Earth science and engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Environmental science and engineering
  • Marine science and engineering
  • Materials science and engineering
  • Mechanical engineering