King Abdullah's money will make KAUST's endowment among the ten biggest worldwide. Credit: H. AMMAR/AFP/GETTY

Saudi Arabia might seem an unlikely spot for a vibrant new multicultural research university. The kingdom is at or near the bottom of rankings for science and technology research and has one of the world's worst track records on academic freedom, not to mention women's and other human rights.

Despite all this, the country's plans for the multibillion-dollar King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have not only secured the help of a blue-ribbon advisory panel of international academics, but have them gushing with superlatives. They say it could be an entrée into academic freedom in the region when it opens in 2009.

“I'm a tremendous enthusiast,” says Frank Rhodes, president emeritus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a panel member. “It's going to be of enormous significance for the whole Middle East and beyond.” Frank Press, president emeritus of the US National Academy of Sciences and another member of the panel, adds: “They might achieve what no one has ever done — build a world-class university in less than a generation. This could be nation-changing.”

One reason for such optimism is the scale of the venture. Saudi Arabia currently invests a pittance on research — 0.25% of its GDP. The king's donation is expected to be several billion dollars, making it one of the world's top ten university endowments.

The country will spend another US$2 billion building a vast campus town on the Red Sea coast 90 kilometres north of Jeddah and $100 million a year for ten years creating joint labs with top research groups worldwide. The graduate university will have interdisciplinary centres instead of departments and will focus on regional interests such as water and energy.

Unlike Saudi Arabia's other state-run universities, KAUST will be managed by independent trustees. Their autonomy will be guaranteed by the endowment, which will be managed abroad by a foundation claimed to be independent of Saudi control. Only a third of the 600 faculty members and 2,000 students are expected to be Saudis. “KAUST is not only a signal of interest in international partnerships, but to bring international researchers to the kingdom,” says panel member Calestous Juma, an expert in international development at Harvard University. He adds that this signifies an opening up of both science and society in the kingdom.

KAUST has outsourced recruitment to top university departments worldwide, which will get cooperative deals worth millions of dollars annually in return. One appointment will be of particular interest: KAUST's founding president, to be selected by an international committee. What if the committee chooses a woman? “The search is merit-based; if a woman is the best candidate we will have no problem with that,” says Mohammed Mulla, a university spokesman.

Members of the search committee say that it may be difficult to find a woman willing to take the post, given the severe restrictions placed on women in the kingdom, but insist that if there is any interference in their choice they will resign.

Reassurance on human rights was a precondition before panel members agreed to take part, says Press. “The Saudis agreed that at this university, this town, there would be no discrimination on sex, religion or ethnicity — that there would be complete freedom.”

Some seasoned Middle East watchers are more wary. “The bureaucratic police state will no doubt buy the best scientific equipment and personnel that money can buy,” says Ziauddin Sardar, a UK-based writer on the cultures of Islam and science. “But it cannot provide the atmosphere of criticism and openness that scientific research needs to flourish.”

The university is wonderful on paper, but I'm sceptical it will bear fruit.

“The university sounds wonderful on paper, but I'm sceptical it will bear fruit,” adds Nader Fergany, director of the Almishkat Centre for Research in Giza, Egypt. “Saudi Arabia has produced expensive white-elephant universities before.” The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, for instance, established in 1977, has not had any significant international impact. And Fergany doubts that the regime can deliver on its promise of autonomy. A first test, he says, will be whether a non-Saudi is allowed to be founding president.

Fergany, who was lead author of the landmark series of Arab Human Development Reports published by the United Nations Development Programme between 2002 and 2005, also doubts that the university represents a move towards greater freedom. “I would be less pessimistic if the kingdom had an overall atmosphere of opening up and reform,” he says. “But the restrictions of the regime are so pervasive that an isolated campus on the Red Sea is not going to make an impact on the country.”

Another sticking point is relations with Israel, a research powerhouse in the region that shares many interests, such as water, with KAUST. Mulla says that Saudi Arabia cannot cooperate “at the present time” with countries with which it does not have diplomatic relations — which would mean no formal collaboration between KAUST and Israeli institutions.

“It's a delicate issue,” says Mulla, and it is being left to the side for the moment. The board has agreed to accept this situation, after receiving assurances that KAUST will be free to recruit Israeli faculty and students.