VIEW: Oasis of learning? —Saleem H Ali
Clear timelines for democratisation need to be established by the monarchy, similar to what has already been done in Kuwait to some degree. Misogynistic laws about women need to be addressed most imminently across the kingdom (not just in enclaves) — there is no room for delay on this matter
There is much to lament about Saudi Arabia’s arcane views of sharia law, but when it comes to decisions on moon-sightings, the kingdom keeps all its dissenting imams admirably under control. Unlike the acrimonious end to Ramzan in Pakistan, the Saudis are able to decide on the date for Eid at a national level with some modicum of scientific sobriety.
This year, King Abdullah had another cause for celebration at Eid — the opening of his namesake University of Science and Technology (The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) — which is being marketed with the awkward acronym “KAUST”. This sparkling new centre for higher education is being heralded as a sound investment in learning and technological development. Indeed, such a university is much needed and several decades overdue, given the level of wealth that the Saudis have amassed and wasted before on extravagant palaces and lifelong trusts for multitudinous children of the royal family.
King Abdullah certainly deserves credit for this initiative, which is truly a state-of-the-art institution in many ways. Boasting one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, the campus has already attracted many corporate partners and foreign universities to collaborate. All the buildings are environmentally designed with the best energy efficient architecture available.
To lead the institution, the Saudis have ventured beyond the usual Euro-American academics and found an Asian engineer of world standing. The former president of the National University of Singapore, Shih Choon Fong, will be the president of the university with a board of advisors comprising numerous luminaries. The campus has been built in a new city fifty miles north of Jeddah and this “oasis” will have different laws from the rest of the kingdom. Co-education will be permitted and women will be allowed to drive! Wow! But this is where we must hold our applause.
The mere fact that this university has been developed in a separate enclave divorced from the rest of Saudi society is very troubling. What this means is that the Saudi state will get another excuse to delay its process of modernisation by pointing towards this chic and boutique project that puts it in league with more progressive rivals such as the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain or Qatar.
Before the advent of KAUST, the Saudi government had practiced similar enclave governance in compounds for foreigners such as the fabled Aramco complex near Dhahran. The argument made by many suave Western-educated Saudi diplomats is that their society needs to develop at its own place and in the meantime, they should keep foreign cultures at bay.
However, this argument is now getting very stale indeed since more than five decades have passed and no such gradual acculturation is occurring. Indeed, Saudi society is getting more radicalised because of rising inequality and the dominance of conservative clerics.
If the Saudi royal family thinks that it can buy off Al Qaeda or placate them by perpetuating ossified and draconian laws that are blatantly discriminatory towards women and minorities, they are sadly mistaken. Despite all this placation, the Al Qaeda leadership has again threatened the Kingdom and there was an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber on the Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef last month.
It is high time that the Saudi establishment realises that they will never be able to win over Al Qaeda. Indeed, the irony of the matter is that liberal human rights activists in the West and even conservative commentators are equally abhorrent of the Saudi regime. The stability doctrine that sustained the Saudi monarchy with support from old-school realists in the United States is also fast failing as oil sources are further diversified.
The establishment of KAUST may provide part of the solution to Saudi Arabia’s problems in terms of improving educational capacity. However, before getting to university, the Saudi populace first needs to have much better elementary and secondary education. The Kingdom needs to dispense with exclusionary doctrines and indoctrination with their own radical sharia in schools. Perhaps then they can stem the tide of radicalisation and move towards laurels in science and technology. In their rush for pomp and circumstance, well intentioned and genuinely noble King Abdullah may have put the cart before the horse.
But it is still not too late. Rapid educational reform can be undertaken across the Kingdom with the same level of zeal with which the $10 billion KAUST project was implemented within two years.
Furthermore, clear timelines for democratisation need to be established by the monarchy, similar to what has already been done in Kuwait to some degree. Misogynistic laws about women need to be addressed most imminently across the kingdom (not just in enclaves) — there is no room for delay on this matter. The Kingdom is already an international embarrassment for the Muslim world with its ridiculous prohibition of driving for women and the “necessity” for male relatives escorting women in public places.
The Saudi regime should be willing to withstand the wrath of clerics for a while but must do what is right for the country and for their faith by changing these laws just as the United States did away with discrimination against minorities in one revolutionary regulatory movement during the 1960s. The world will surely support the Saudis in this matter and for all we know such an act of leadership may well endear the House of Saud to many of its critics too and might even be enough to get them elected through proper process.
As for KAUST, let’s hope that it heralds a new era of reform in what could very well be a promised land of wealth and positive power.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont. His latest book is “Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future” (Yale University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net