Abdullah’s Bold Move in Faithful Education

October 27, 2007 | 18 comments

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is building a university from the ground up. It is to be much less conservative than other Saudi institutions, but is explicitly based in Muslim values. This opens some very exciting possibilities. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) will be a graduate research university, and as its name suggests, primarily oriented toward science and technology, at least at first. It is clear from the words of the king that he intends it to revitalize the Saudi economy, and the ripples will reach much of the Muslim world. Yet it is sure also to be a major engine for social development. Women will study and work alongside men, and will be allowed freedoms they would enjoy in the West, within the university community. KAUST will greatly expand the opportunities of a substantially Muslim student body, and serve as an example to Muslim societies of constructive engagement with global culture. The Arab News describes it as “a bridge between cultures and nations”. The work of the university will be organized in innovative fashion, not by academic disciplines, but by interdisciplinary Research Institutes. The first four Institutes are rather technically oriented, but even the Institute for Resources, Energy and Environment will raise interesting human questions. Before long I would expect a business school, and even explicitly political and social topics may be taken up.

Universities in the West have become almost completely secular. KAUST represents a major addition to a small cadre of universities that retain a strong religious character. Of these, Notre Dame is struggling to maintain its Catholic identity. BYU has only begun to do Mormon Studies. Baylor remains divided over recent efforts to renew its religious character. KAUST hasn’t exactly announced an Institute for Muslim Faith and Society. But KAUST, an hour from Mecca, would be as natural a place for it as can be. The need for such a place is immense, and King Abdullah seems to be starting things off right.


18 Responses to Abdullah’s Bold Move in Faithful Education

  1. Dan on October 27, 2007 at 9:38 am

    I hope it doesn’t get blown up.

  2. John David Payne on October 27, 2007 at 10:35 am

    My dad consults for projects like this in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government is always building new universities, just as the Bedouin sheikhs build new mansions in the desert and abandon old ones as they tire of them. Even if I were completely convinced of the sincerity of King Abdullah’s ambitions here, I would find it difficult to be optimistic that this new venture will result in much change. The higher education culture there is so corrupt, and so conservative– where will he get the administrators who will follow his vision? Where will he find professors who will give bad grades to the sons of sheikhs and princes when their wealthy, powerful fathers are demanding high grades for shoddy work? Where will he find the students who are interested in rigorous, demanding work instead of easy degrees in majors like Islamic Studies?* It is true that the need for a real research university in Saudi Arabia is immense, but neither immense need nor good intentions are sufficient. I wish it were.

    * This is not a critique of Islamic Studies programs in the US or Europe. Many people who study terrorism are concerned about the high number of students in Saudi Arabia (and a few other key countries) who get degrees that (1) do not develop critical thinking and (2) do not prepare them for the workforce. A typical degree in Islamic Studies from a Saudi university is thought to have these two problems. See Benjamin and Simon, _Age of Sacred Terror_; Akbarzadeh and Yasmin, _Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia_, etc.

  3. Adam Greenwood on October 27, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Research institutes, huh? That’s interesting. Our current disciplinary system was designed for universities that had a purpose other than skill and career development. Interesting to see how this kind of innovation will work. Unfortunately it will take a series of strong leaders to avoid the cultural gravity of the American university system.

  4. David Clark on October 27, 2007 at 11:59 am

    I’d like to be optimistic about this, but until the Islamic world undergoes something akin to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment I’ll be highly skeptical. The Islamic world has readily assimilated the fruits of these western endeavors (I am sure they all have TV’s, DVD players, the Internet, etc), but completely reject the philosophy, culture, social structures, and politics that allows a society to produce these things. They need to rewind the tape to Avicenna and replay it from there, this time following a different path than they did last time. If they do that, then institutes like this will follow as the day follows the night, no intervention from an “enlightened despot” will be necessary.

  5. Bob on October 27, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Sorry to say, but it sounds like they are starting their work on the Bomb. I like the old system, where the sheiks send their smart kids to Germany, England, or USC, for college.
    Also sorry to say, I heard this same optimism, (on this Blog), about going into Iraq and opening it up Western ways.

  6. Janet on October 27, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Ben, enthusiastic thanks for the summary and the links. Considering the state of our world, I’m woefully ignorant of developments in the predominantly Muslim portions of the world, and it’s quite nice to have someone put links in one place.

  7. Adam Greenwood on October 27, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    They need to rewind the tape to Avicenna and replay it from there, this time following a different path than they did last time.


    [Edit: the West experienced the Enlightenment organically and incrementally. The Middle East can't consciously retrace the same steps and probably wouldn't want to, seeing how it turned out. They'll have to find their own path.]

  8. Jonathan Green on October 27, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Right, Adam, I don’t think David Clark was literally suggesting instituting a policy of time reversal. I suspect your objection isn’t solely technological, but I can’t quite figure out which part you think is impossible. Could we ask for the 10- or 15-word version of what you were thinking?

  9. Ben H on October 28, 2007 at 12:19 am

    The usual routine in Saudi education presumably wouldn’t result in anything remarkable. But it looks like this is a serious effort to do something different, to run the place much like a Western university. The NYT article details some of the differences from the usual routine. The way it is being built as a whole new community suggests the intent is to make a fresh start. Events of the past few years have led the Saudi government to make some striking changes on other fronts. Perhaps they have really gotten the message that change is necessary. It’s a huge job to do it right, sure. Really, though, it all depends on what faculty and administrators they can bring in. There are a few things that should be non-negotiable based on who is sponsoring it. There are many things that will be non-negotiable for the kind of faculty the place is supposed to draw in. The list of speakers at their opening symposium is an impressive bunch. If they actually listen to the advice of current and former presidents of MIT, Cornell, etc. they may be able to pull it off. Between the cultural gravity of the American university system, and the cultural gravity of the Arab world, maybe the place will have just the dynamic tension needed to do something really helpful.

    Sure, there are plenty of reasons why the place could be a big disappointment. But if something good is going to happen, it has to start somewhere. Why not here?

  10. quandmeme on October 28, 2007 at 1:38 am

    I have to plug the Physics Today article that argues that the muslim word cannot just throw money and achieve progress. [via slashdot ]
    FTA: “Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or “butterfly-collecting” activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.”

    I hope this is more of a segue than a threadjack, but can I ask how this type of critique/prognosis applies to our seeking out knowledge.

    Personally, my answer comes down to the distinction between spirituality and religion. I posit that spiritually devote individuals do not stop seeking just because they take miracles and supernatural revelation literally. (Am I just imposing my kind of spirituality on the supposition: Alma 32 is very scientific method, IMO.) I think that is when there is a community or an especially conservative religion that allocations of resources and priorities at the group level redirect resources from empirical creativity.

  11. Bob on October 28, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    #10: I think Christians, Jews, Arabs, Commies, Nazis, Evangelics, Atheists, all can do science well.

  12. Adam Greenwood on October 28, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    Nazi science sneers at your ecumenicism.

  13. Ben H on October 28, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    This “science finds every soil barren” line sounds like a discourse of faith, not science. Sure, lots of scientists have had this kind of faith, but lots have had other kinds. Isaac Newton wrote more theology than he did physics. Empirically, this anti-religious faith doesn’t hold up.

    Anyway, I’m sure KAUST isn’t going to expect all its faculty to be Muslim. That would be silly. Abdullah is excluding the religious police. I get the feeling commenters haven’t read the stuff I linked to. It’s hard to know what it must look like to y’all, though, since several of my best friends growing up were Muslim (Riyadh, 1979-1986). Let’s just say I know there are a lot of very smart Muslims out there who do not fit the stereotypes. If someone could just build a community where the ones like that could get together, with resources to do things differently . . .

  14. David Clark on October 28, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    The Middle East can’t consciously retrace the same steps and probably wouldn’t want to, seeing how it turned out. They’ll have to find their own path. No they can’t recapitulate everything that the west did. What I was saying was metaphorical. The point I am making is that in the high middle ages the west consciously decided to continue the study of secular philosophy while the Islamic world decided to jettison this in favor of religious fundamentalism. From that point on in the west you get Renaissance, scientific revolution etc. organically and incrementally. They have to do _something_ equivalent to change attitudes and values. My secondary point would be that universities do not create these values, they are a product of these values. The medieval university developed because scholars valued secular philosophy _and_ theology. The Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment largely happened outside of the university, the universities were still busy reading Aristotle, only later did the universities get dragged into the modern age. I don’t think you can do this in reverse, have the universities create the values which then infiltrate into the larger culture, which is what Abdullah is trying to do.

    If someone could just build a community where the ones like that could get together, with resources to do things differently. The enlightened despot approach to social change just doesn’t work very well, and it certainly isn’t go to work at all with a few universities and not much in the way of real social, legal, and political reform. I don’t see much of that happening in Saudi Arabia. One thing is for certain they had better act quickly. The higher that gas prices go the better it is good for them in the short term, the very bad for long term financial solvency. Once it is worth someone’s while to invent the products that wean the U.S. off of foreign oil (via domestic shale, nuclear, solar etc.) Saudi Arabia will face hard economic times unless it has developed a diversified and stable economy not based on petrol dollars. I hope it happens, but I am not optimistic.

  15. Bob on October 28, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    #13: You ask a lot for one school, especially if it is going to be for graduates “primarily oriented toward science and technology”. I have had friends from the American University of Beirut. Is this what is hoped for? ( I believe it is a good school*?*) I too try to avoid stereotypes But, I just don’t see the King wanting a ‘Berkeley’ in his Kingdom.

  16. Non-Arab Arab on October 29, 2007 at 12:25 am

    AUB and AUC (and apparently AUS in Sharjah) are all good schools, but they are also schools of a thin crust of westernized elites. AUB is also quite sharply divided along sectarian lines (as are most things in Lebanon). We’ll see if KAUST becomes better than other Saudi schools or as elitist as AUB and AUC have become.

    I was about to go point by point through many of the comments here, but let me instead simply recommend a book. “America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier” by Bob Vitalis. Essential reading for anyone who wants to get a better kingdom of the background to the development of the Saudi state, Aramco, and relations with the US. I have never found a better book on the topic. Want to know why the system is so ossified? Read:


    Oh, and btw, the Saudi balance sheet is quite healthy. While it’s nowhere near as good as the UAE’s or Qatar’s, the Saudis now have substantial foreign resevers to weather another downturn in the oil price. You can expect their economy to do much better than ours when the next global recession hits.

  17. Bob on October 29, 2007 at 1:23 am

    #16: This confirms my friend’s view of AUB. I guess I am most fearful of our lack of understanding of the Middle East ( And China, etc.). Thanks for some insight.

  18. Ben H on October 30, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    David Clark (#14), I’ll grant that universities are a product of the determination to develop religious and secular thought alongside one another. Where did the ancient secular thought come from that sparked the Renaissance? A lot of it came from the Middle East, where it had been preserved, responded to, and added to. Thomas Aquinas was responding to Averroes, Al-Ghazali, Al-Farabi, Maimonides . . . Maybe it’s time to pass the torch back.

    Yes, the Renaissance happened largely outside of universities. There were hardly any universities at the time anyway. The people carrying forward the Renaissance (and much of the scientific work up through the 19th Century) were wealthy elites with leisure to spend and a certain ideal of noble cultivation. But nowadays the wealthy elites send their kids to universities, and universities are engines of social change to a significant degree. Or engines of social degeneration; that’s one kind of change . . . Anyway, it seems to me a totally natural move today to build a community around a university and try to cultivate a new culture.


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