Author Topic: Saudi launches new hi-tech research oasis  (Read 3940 times)

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Saudi launches new hi-tech research oasis
« on: September 28, 2009, 10:23:20 AM »
Saudi launches new hi-tech research oasis

By Paul Handley (AFP) – 5 days ago

THUWAL — Saudi Arabia was on Wednesday to launch a new hi-tech mixed-sex university on the Red Sea coast aimed at catapulting the kingdom into the forefront of global technological research.

Jammed with equipment most scientists can only dream of and sporting one of the world's fastest supercomputers, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) was to be officially unveiled late afternoon by King Abdullah with an audience of top world scientists and a handful of leaders.

KAUST with its flashy three-dimensional imaging facilities and other modern hardware worth some 1.5 billion dollars, is a keystone of the 85-year-old king's effort to modernise the oil-rich kingdom, underscored by its launch on the Saudi national day.

While Saudi officials are loathe to talk about it, the post-graduate-level-only university is also the first Saudi public education institution to mix men and women, challenging hard-line Islamic clerics' rule on keeping the sexes separated.

Built in just two years out of the barren desert coast 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Jeddah at a cost of billions of dollars, KAUST has recruited an international faculty and student body.

Experts say that it's probably the first research university in the world ever built from the ground up.

But no one is certain whether the huge leap into global-class research, with the best equipment, talent and research projects money can buy, can revolutionise the country's backward and often heavily religion-focused education sector.

"Our research facilities are unsurpassed," says KAUST president Choon Fong Shih, who helped build the national university in Singapore into a respected research institution.

"I stood here two years ago, there was nothing but sand and sea. Today, there is one of the best infrastructures for research," he told AFP.

"Hopefully, it will act as a catalyst in transforming Saudi Arabia into a knowledge economy," Vice-President Nadhmi al-Nasr told Saudi daily Arab News.

The masters and doctorate degree students represent more than 60 countries, with some 15 percent from Saudi Arabia itself.

With about 15 percent of the incoming student body women, all having studied at universities outside the kingdom, mixing is absolutely necessary for successful research, experts say.

Organisers said among those expected to attend the ceremony are Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Malaysian King Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdul Aziz and Claude Gueant, a top aide to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Security was high for the opening ceremony after Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch issued a new threat against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, nearly four weeks after a suicide bomber blew himself up in an attempt to kill Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

KAUST's chairman is Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, who is an influential figure in OPEC representing what was until recently the world's top oil exporter but which now stands second to Russia.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

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« Last Edit: October 02, 2009, 08:47:31 AM by staff2 »

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Saudi Arabia's 'Stanford' opens
« Reply #1 on: September 28, 2009, 10:51:50 AM »

      
Sat, Sep 26, 2009
The Straits Times
      
Saudi Arabia's 'Stanford' opens

By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer

ALONG the shores of the Red Sea, 80km from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of guests gathered yesterday to celebrate the birth of a university.

The Saudi government spared no expense to fly in university presidents, Nobel laureates and government leaders, among others, to witness the inauguration of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust), which the rulers hope will propel the kingdom into the heady global ranks of technological research.

Visitors arriving at the university gates were subjected to long security checks by gun-toting soldiers in bullet-proof vests before being waved in.

Saudi monarch King Abdullah, 85, whose name the university bears, endowed the university with US$10 billion (S$14 billion), instantly creating one of the richest universities in the world.

Kaust's president is Professor Shih Choon Fong, who took on the post after spending 11 years at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Showing off the oceanfront views of the campus he has dubbed 'Stanford by the sea', he told The Straits Times: 'Two years ago, when I was first recruited, there was nothing but sand and sea. Today, there is one of the best infrastructures for research.'

Classes, taught in English, started on Sept 5 with 71 professors and 374 students from more than 60 countries.

Students have plunged headlong into joint research programmes with institutions ranging from NUS to Britain's Cambridge University, and to Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology in the United States.

Research areas include nanotechnology, solar engineering, membrane research and bioengineering.

Shiny new buildings impressed the visitors who toured the sprawling 36sqkm campus - 25 times the size of the Kent Ridge campus of NUS.

The university's researchers, such as American Steve Cutchin, however, were more excited about research facilities like Shaheen, the 14th largest supercomputer in the world, and the virtual reality system called Cornea, which can transport you in an instant to the tunnel of an archaeological dig in Jordan.

The university also has one of the most generous research stipends for students and academic salaries. Assistant professors are paid annual salaries and bonuses averaging US$150,000 - three times more than their counterparts in Singapore.

Students and professors are impressed that the King has given the institution his full political endorsement, needed to stave off internal challenges from conservatives. It will also grant them an unfettered academic environment on campus.

The foreigners, both faculty and students, have been assured that there will be none of the restrictions which apply to other public universities here.

Among other things, the Islamic authorities vet the curriculum in public institutions. Male and female students enter classrooms through separate doors and are separated by partitions as they follow lectures.

Word has it that, to ensure that there is academic freedom in Kaust, King Abdullah has cut the country's education authorities out of the loop. The ministry overseeing all other public universities is said to be controlled by fundamentalists.

Instead, the Kaust project was overseen by state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco, which has experience in creating a parallel world. The gated communities it builds for Westerners resemble American suburbs, and women are free to wear Western gear and drive.

The King apparently pushed for the university because he recognises that despite being the largest producer of oil, the country needs to survive globalisation and create jobs for its growing citizenry.

When talking about his vision for a science and technology university three years ago, he said: 'There is no real power without achieving progress in science and technology. Anyone failing to achieve excellence in these subjects will be marginalised.'

Said Professor Shih: 'The King is concerned that the Saudi economy is flying on one engine. You need to create another engine - one that is based on science and technology, and that is where Kaust comes in.'

Arab News editor-in-chief Khaled Almaeena noted that the Saudi population has tripled to 25 million from 7.3 million in 1975 and 60 per cent of all Saudis are under the age of 25.

'There is a recognition that as the population grows, the kingdom's riches must be spread among more people,' he said.

He added that despite decades of oil wealth, the Saudi education system was ranked as one of the worst worldwide. Tens of thousands of university graduates are unemployed and the economy is not diverse enough to compete in the new knowledge-based economy.

Economic urgency notwithstanding, the creation of the university has intensified the ideological battle between Saudi reformers led by the King and the Wahabi sect of puritanical Islam that has resisted outside influence for centuries.

A young Arab female student in her long flowing black abaya but minus her headscarf politely declined to pose for pictures or be named by the media.

Inside the campus, she mixed freely with her male classmates and professors. However, she admitted that outside of the campus grounds, she is subject to constraints placed on all women by the government's strict interpretation of Islam.

Women are not allowed to mix in public with men who are not related to them and are prohibited from driving cars.

She said: 'It is good to have the opportunity to learn and conduct research alongside some of the best academics from around the world, both male and female.'

While Saudi women account for 57 per cent of higher education graduates, they make up only 15 per cent of the workforce.

Outside of the campus grounds though, the older, more conservative people said that although they supported the opening up of opportunities for Saudis, both men and women, things were moving a little too rapidly.

'The rules are there for a reason. Young men and women should not be together. We are inviting trouble,' said the mother of two university-going children.

Her views are echoed by people from the conservative religious establishment, such as Sheik Abdul-Aziz Alturafi, who wrote on his website www.mubasheer.com that gender-mixing, an idea borrowed from Westerners, is forbidden in Islam. He added that if allowed in the kingdom, it would generate problems for society.

Others felt that the university should be a Saudi university for Saudi people, not a foreign university implanted in the kingdom.

The King's supporters, such as Mr Khaled Almaeena, disagree.

'We are part of the global world now. Whether we like it or not, regardless of our political and religious systems, we have to adapt to keep up with the rest of the world. We have no time to waste. We need an open, free flow of education,' he said.

Agreeing, Prof Shih said that given another five years, Kaust would prove that an 'open enabling environment in the campuses' will not necessarily erode Saudi culture and tradition, but instead give rise to great innovations and discovery, and bring back the golden age of Islam.

'My hope is that in a few years the other universities in Saudi Arabia will look at us and say, if Kaust can work, why can't we do similar things? Kaust will become a catalyst for change,' he said.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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Re: Saudi launches new hi-tech research oasis
« Reply #2 on: October 02, 2009, 08:48:40 AM »

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Re: Saudi launches new hi-tech research oasis
« Reply #3 on: October 02, 2009, 01:29:44 PM »
Planes with shaded windows

Khalaf Al-Harbi | Okaz, klfhrbe@gmail.com

About half a century ago, Malaysia was a backward, poor and disunited country while Afghanistan was a

civilized, rich and united nation. Malaysians and Afghans were known to be very religious. However, religion did

not prevent the Malaysians from seeking knowledge, uniting their ranks and opening themselves up to the

world.

The Afghans, on the other hand, succumbed to the calls for seclusion and takfir. The country became the

target of invaders and a haven for outlaws. We cannot today compare Malaysia with Afghanistan. The disparity

between them is the distance between light and darkness.

Amidst the Kingdom's celebrations marking the opening of King Abdullah University of Science and

Technology (KAUST) there were some calls which bore the dust of Tora Bora and belittled this gigantic

national accomplishment by raising the issue of co-education.

Scholars who made such calls know very well that the mingling of men and women already exists in airports,

planes, markets, medical colleges and hospitals, and at Saudi Aramco and other companies. They tried to

confuse the public by projecting a distorted picture of this spectacular scientific institution, whose founders are

endeavoring to re-establish Muslims as pioneers in science as present-day Muslims have limited themselves

to weekend marriages.

This is how some of the sheikhs of misyar and misfar marriages see things. They accept the mingling of the

sexes in markets and commercial compounds but reject it in research laboratories, because they believe

education is unnecessary. They allow mingling in hospitals but are scared of it in laboratories "because the

chemical reactions might intermingle with the ideas of expulsion leading to the outburst of pipes and the

spilling of sulfuric acid on thobes."

For how long will the bidding on faith continue? What religious and national interest lies in projecting a distorted

and exaggerated picture of this pioneer educational edifice, which has been praised profusely by the Arab and

international media as one of the most important educational achievements in the last few years? Is there any

country in the world that is keener than Saudi Arabia in honoring the tenets of Islam?

We know that some of these "ideologically closed" minds would prefer the example of the defunct Taleban

state. If it were in their hands, they would even separate men and women on aircraft - they would have two

separate flights to single destinations: one for men and another "with shaded windows" for women. Such

suggestions are unreasonable and do not suit the contemporary age or even the early ages of Islam when

Muslims did not have this phobia and when men and women were partners in a thriving Islamic civilization that

changed the face of the world.

**