* Disclaimer: This post was written in October 2010. So a lot of things, including KAUST policy, might have changed.
About a week ago, I got a chance to visit the campus of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. I had always been wanting to visit KAUST, but as the university was closely guarded, it was impossible to go there without knowing anyone who lived in the campus. Lucky for me, during an Indonesian gathering in Jeddah, my dad met one of the KAUST students so we quickly demanded a visit!
KAUST, dubbed as the new “House of Wisdom” (in Arabic Bayt Al-Hekma), is the result of SR 10 billion ($2.7 billion) endowment from the current leader of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. For the King, KAUST is a dream come true, as he had the vision to establish such institution for more than 25 years. The 36 square kilometres campus is built from scratch in the desert by the Red Sea, and is managed by Saudi Aramco, the country’s oil giant. Currently, there is a total of 800 postgraduate students from 60 countries studying at KAUST.
Attracting high-quality faculty members and world’s best students remains to be the key to KAUST success. As an initial step, Professor Shih Choon Fong was appointed as KAUST’s Founding President. Professor Shih is a globally recognised researcher in both academia and private industry. He successfully led National University of Singapore (NUS) to be a highly-regarded global research university when he became its President for 8 years. He’s expected to bring the success of NUS to KAUST and help the new university to achieve global excellence. Besides Professor Shih, KAUST is supported by highly qualified and experienced faculty members from top universities around the world.
KAUST is located about an hour drive from Jeddah. When we reached the campus, my first reaction was wooow, so big! I was practically amazed by its size and facilities! As part of its effort to create a supportive environment for its multicultural community, the campus is equipped with extensive recreational facilities, from a 9-hole golf course, rock climbing wall, to a 24-lane bowling complex, which can be accessed by its small inhabitants for free! It even has a seaside marina with a yacht and sailing facilities! Not to mention that one of the most beautiful Red Sea’s coral reefs is located within few distances from the campus! How cool is that! 😀 Besides those facilities, the campus provides a daycare and school for those with dependents (and they’re also for free!), as well as its own hotel for visitors. Services such us weekly activities outside of campus, free shuttle buses to Jeddah, Mekkah, and Madinah, and visa applications to embassies are provided by KAUST to support its community.
The postgraduate students of KAUST received a $20,000/year scholarship and were entitled to a free yearly flight ticket to home country. Unlike in other universities where students were placed in dormitories or student houses, each KAUST students get a 3-storey fully-furnished apartment! It was really big for a one person apartment!!! The kitchen and living room complete with TV (and 400-something channels to choose from) and private landline number (free calls to other landline numbers in Jeddah!) were located in the first floor. The second floor was for the bedroom. The study room was located in the third floor. Some of the accommodations have a beautiful beach view of the Red Sea! *envy* What made me more amazed was that, if you brought your spouse, you would be moved to a bigger one — not apartment, but a house! Wow!
Being the first mixed-sex institution in Saudi Arabia, the university was not without controversy when it was first inaugurated in 2009. A Saudi Sheikh criticised the campus, saying that mixing of sexes in the land of the Two Holy Mosques was unacceptable. Well, he was too busy worrying about that and he, unfortunately, ignored the fact that this university would make significant contributions to the world and his country! Anyway, the good thing about KAUST is that women can freely wear whatever they want, mix with opposite sex without fear of persecution, and get behind the wheel on campus. I didn’t have to put my abaya on when I was there. Religious police were not allowed to enter the premise. I was so surprised that the shops did not close during prayers! That wouldn’t happen anywhere in the Kingdom! I felt like I was in a foreign place! There was even a cinema!!! (Cinema was not allowed in Saudi Arabia!) KAUST was indeed a small country within a country :).
In addition to recreational facilities mentioned before, KAUST provides advanced research laboratory facilities and types of equipment, including Shaheen, the fastest supercomputer in the Middle East and one of the most powerful in the world, as a result of its partnership with IBM. The university also owns the Coastal & Marine Resources Lab in order to facilitate marine research, an advanced computation and visualisation facility, and nanofabrication lab, as well as biosciences and bioengineering labs. KAUST has also made collaborations with many research institutions and universities around the world to undertake large-scale research projects.
The university strives for creating an environmentally-friendly campus, by implementing environmentally responsible methods of energy use, materials management, and water consumption. It houses Saudi Arabia’s first large-scale power plant with an output of 2-megawatt and produces up to 3,300-megawatt hours of clean energy annually, while also saving up to 1,666 tonnes of yearly carbon emissions. The campus has its own wastewater treatment plan to treat all wastewater to be returned to the environment or used on the site. It also implements a recycling and composting program that recycles paper, corrugated cardboard, glass, plastics and metals and collects all compostable material for mulch reuse. As a result, KAUST becomes Saudi Arabia’s first and world’s largest LEED-certified project. How awesome!
With the world-class facilities, KAUST is expected to compete internationally within the area of science and technology through research and innovation and to enable the creation of a new standard for education in Saudi Arabia. As the first mixed-sex institution in the Kingdom, many hope that the presence of KAUST will eventually modernise the country’s deeply conservative society. Most importantly, as King Abdullah put it, the university is expected to be “a beacon for peace, hope and reconciliation, and shall serve the people of the Kingdom and benefit all the peoples of the world.” Insya Allah.
More pictures are uploaded to here.
* Thanks to the Indonesian students at KAUST who gave us a tour around the campus 🙂 I felt like a tourist in a small country!
** I am not being paid to write this, of course, :P. I’m just amazed from the beginning that Saudi Arabia is able to build such a world-class research institution! This reflects how the Kingdom is really committed to the improvement of its educational system which will benefit its future generation 🙂