Saudi king tries to grow modern ideas in desert

Bloody interesting.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is staking $12.5 billion on a gargantuan bid to catch up with the West in science and technology.

Between an oil refinery and the sea, the monarch is building from scratch a graduate research institution that will have one of the 10 largest endowments in the world, worth more than $10 billion.

Its planners say men and women will study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country’s notorious religious police will be barred and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom’s cultural and religious limits.

For the new institution, the king has cut his own education ministry out the loop, hiring the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco to build the campus, create its curriculum and attract foreigners.

It all sounds vaguely Syriana-ish – not to mention wonderful! I’d work there. If only they had some medieaval art for my (Jewish) wife to study. So…

Upon completion, the energy-efficient campus will house 20,000 faculty and staff members, students and their families. Social rules will be more relaxed, as they are in the compounds where foreign oil workers live; women will be allowed to drive, for example. But the kingdom’s laws will still apply: Israelis, barred by law from visiting Saudi Arabia, will not be able to collaborate with the university. And one staple of campus life worldwide will be missing: alcohol.

The university president will be a foreigner, and the faculty members and graduate students at first will be overwhelmingly foreign as well. Generous scholarships will finance the 2,000 graduate students; planners expect the Saudi share of the student body to increase over the years as scholarships aimed at promising current undergraduates help groom them for graduate studies at the new university.

The university’s entire model is built around partnerships with other international universities, and faculty members are expected to have permanent bases at other research institutions abroad.

The university will also rely on a new free-market model. The faculty members will not have tenure, and almost all of them will have joint appointments. While the university will initially be awash in money, its faculty and graduate students will still have to compete with top international institutions for the limited pool of private money that underwrites most graduate research.

Very impressive.

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