Monday, October 29, 2007

The Man from K.A.U.S.T.


Imagine the Swiss government chiding the U.S. over a lack of transparency in its banking practices, and you’ll have some idea of British reaction to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s statement that the UK is not doing enough to fight international terrorism.

On the home front, Abdullah plans to turn the tide of Arab underachievement by creating a Saudi M.I.T. In an echo of past Third World megaprojects, the king is building an $12.5 billion university campus in the desert near Jidda, and will try to lure top-notch foreign talent to teach and staff there. (The Times' Thanassis Cambanis couldn't help but use the term "gargantuan" to describe it.)

Abdullah has taken the job of building this King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) away from his own education ministry and will ban the mutawwa—the kingdom’s religious enforcers—from within its walls. This will supposedly allow coeducation and a freer exchange of ideas than anywhere else in Saudi society.

The king imagines that KAUST will aid Arab development and begin transforming Saudi society from the top down. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s problem has always been the gap between its elites—who will continue to go to U.S. and UK institutions ranging from Oxford to Appalachian State regardless—and its populace. No one questions the level of education of Saudi elites or their relative open-mindedness and liberality compared with Saudi society at large.

Abdullah’s money might be better spent on the riskier and far more problematic path of initiating broad-based reform in Saudi society. It would be inexpensive, for example, to ban the mutawwa from a small but ever-expanding list of public places until their power is attenuated.

But this would take decades to accomplish, and the king may not feel he has that kind of time. Better to throw money at the problem and earn a quick score with the international media.

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