The Saudis seem to be racing ahead under the leadership of Shih Choon Fong from NUS (and also big money from oil, of course).
Saudis Lure Stanford, Cambridge to University Built on Oil Boom
By Glen Carey and Matthew Brown
Sept. 3 (Bloomberg) — When Saeed al-Malowi talks with his mechanical engineering students at Taibah University in Saudi Arabia, he says the conversation often turns to pursuing advanced degrees abroad and the dim prospects of finding jobs at home.
“There is no relationship between education and the demands in the workforce,” the 27-year-old teaching assistant said in Medina, where the Prophet Mohammed is buried.
To improve training, Saudi Arabia is spending some of the $1 billion a day it receives from oil exports to transform higher education. As a first step, the kingdom is building a graduate-level science and technology school that has used its $10 billion endowment to form partnerships with the University of Cambridge, Stanford University and General Electric Co.
The institution will be independent of the clerics who have dominated Saudi education since 1979, broadening options in a country where high school courses focus on religion more than any other subject. That may help graduates find jobs and blunt the threat that long-term unemployment will push young people into terrorist groups, said Anoushka Marashlian, an independent Middle East analyst based in London.
“If you have a pool of under-employed or unemployed young men who are well-versed in the Koran and nothing else, they are going to be willing recruits of al-Qaeda,” Marashlian said.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, is scheduled to open in September 2009. Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi is overseeing the project and the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, headed by Governor Amr al- Dabbagh, is promoting private investment in the country’s education system.
“The vision of the king is to devote this boom toward human capital,” al-Dabbagh said. “To become really a producer of knowledge as opposed to a consumer.”
Young people aged 20 to 24 make up 44 percent of jobless citizens in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter. The country’s schools have been criticized for breeding religious radicals with few work skills. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis.
Saudi police this year have arrested 701 people suspected of belonging to terror cells that were plotting attacks on economic targets including oil installations.
Pumping money into universities may not be enough to loosen the clergy’s grip on young people. Primary school classes include anti-Jewish and anti-Christian teachings, according to a July 15 report from the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based group that conducts research on security issues.
Youths under 14, who make up 38 percent of the Saudi population, won’t benefit from experiments in post-graduate education, said Farid Abolfathi, managing director of country risk and macroeconomics at New York-based Global Insight, which provides political analysis for governments and companies.
The state is “more likely to throw money at problems than to make fundamental changes,” he said.
Kaust is being built in the Red Sea fishing village of Thuwal, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Jeddah.
Today, a forest of steel construction cranes rises out of the desert sands. The institution will have tree-lined streets, a canal and a marina, according to the university’s Web site.
Saudi Arabia isn’t alone in trying to attract international academic leaders to the Persian Gulf to improve education and diversify the economy. New York University is planning a campus in Abu Dhabi, and Cornell University will set up a medical school campus in Doha, Qatar.
In Saudi Arabia, Kaust is part of an effort to change the education system, al-Dabbagh said in an interview in Medina.
“The Ministry of Education is definitely engaged in revamping the education system, but that is not enough,” he said. “We need to develop a globally competitive pool of talents that is adequate with the marketplace.”
Kaust’s university partnerships are Saudi Arabia’s most extensive ever.
Stanford in California and Cambridge each received $10 million to help Kaust set up programs and an additional $15 million for joint research. The University of Oxford got $25 million as part of an agreement to host Kaust researchers in its laboratories.
Stanford also will advise on the curricula for applied mathematics and computer science and on department staffing.
“The hope is that the university will serve to lift the level of both university education in the region, as well as positively impact the broader society,” Peter Glynn, director of Stanford’s Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
GE, the world’s biggest maker of power-plant turbines, jet engines and medical-imaging equipment, will design, build and help operate some of the university’s research centers, according to Kaust’s Web site. It will also exchange scientists and research with the university.
In Medina, al-Malowi’s students say they would welcome the chance to study at King Abdullah University, rather than going abroad for graduate school.
“We hope in Saudi Arabia that our economy will be like that in the U.S. or Japan,” said Ahmed Ibrahim al-Harbi.
To achieve that goal, the kingdom will have to do more than build universities, according to al-Malowi.
“If we are going to improve the education, it has to start from the primary level.”