The groundbreaking of KAUST was the biggest news in Saudi Arabia during the past two weeks. King Abdullah officially broke ground for the promising project in a huge event attended by thousands of dignitaries. I wasn’t invited, but fellow blogger John Burgess was there and he wrote about it here.
Since I have been offline for the past few days I have not closely followed what has been said about it, but I have written previously about KAUST, way before anyone in the local media had the slightest idea what the acronym KAUST stands for. I have a few more things to say, though, so here it goes.
There is no doubt that if KAUST delivered all of its promises, it will be the most important achievement that King Abdullah will be remembered by, and many people here feel that the king is very determined to make it happen. But not all people are excited, as some are afraid that a huge project like KAUST could be plagued by the three common symptoms of higher education institutions in the country: corruption, bureaucracy and mismanagement. Now I don’t want to be skeptical, but I think a certain amount of skepticism is required to keep people’s feet on the ground in order to turn big dreams like this one into reality.
Nevertheless, most of the initial indications are good. For example, KAUST will be independent from MOHE. Actually I was surprised that MOHE was not involved in the project at all, but it was a good kind of surprise as MOHE never really impressed me. It was Saudi Aramco who engineered this project from scratch. Despite what many people, including some Aramco employees, say about how Aramco changed to the worse after the Americans left, it remains one of the few government bodies that I trust and expect to preform excellently.
Now I have speculated before that megaprojects such as KAUST and the new economic cities might change the culture of the country. However, it seems that such change may not be a result but rather a condition for these projects to success.
For instance, Saudi Arabia used to be a very closed society with a what can be viewed as hostility towards foreign ideas. On the day after groundbreaking, KAUST hosted a special academic symposium discussing the role of the research university in the 21st century, and the keynote speaker was Dr. Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering and President Emeritus of MIT, who said: “science can flourish only in an open environment.”
It is the hope that KAUST would produce a positive effect on the economy, education and culture of the Saudi society, but hope is not enough. This a huge undertaking to our country and there is a lot of hard work to be done here by everyone. Let’s not blow it.