A Saudi university Genghis Khan would be proud of

Saudis recognize the need to diversify and liberalize and may have taken recent steps to do so.

A MODEL of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is displayed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MODEL of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is displayed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Saudi Arabia’s late king Abdullah opened the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in 2009, he had lofty ambitions.
The inauguration was covered widely, with kings, presidents and the international press all coming to the campus, located near a small fishing village called Thuwal, which is about an hour from Jeddah on the Red Sea.
Abdullah had hoped his multi-billion endowment and namesake would serve as a “beacon that bridges people and cultures and be a modern-day ‘Bayt al Hikma’” – the ninth century “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad, Iraq, where Jews, Muslims and Christians worked together collegially and peacefully advanced mathematics, astronomy, medicine and other disciplines for the betterment of humanity.
It has not worked out that way. It is an educational institution, with all its dysfunction, especially in economic development, that would have made Genghis Khan proud.
Instead of being compared to the House of Wisdom, it should be compared to the Mongols’ destruction of Baghdad in the thirteenth century.
KAUST president Jean-Lou Chameau is no Andrei Sakharov. The former Caltech president has turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s myriad of human rights abuses to collect a million-dollar pay check, just as Western governments have often ignored them when supporting billion-dollar defense contracts with Saudi Arabia.
KAUST is a place that supposedly promotes creative collisions, but the reality is a top-down institution where California and British technocrats kowtow to Wahhabi leaders. In 2015, 18 Nobel laureates urged Chameau to support the freedom to dissent by standing up for Raif Badawi, the writer who was jailed and flogged for daring to criticize clerics. Not surprisingly, Chameau was silent.
In the process, Chameau has surrounded himself with unprofessional foreign economic development leadership.
Genghis Khan would have loved it.
At KAUST’s 2016 Industry Advisory Board meeting, attended by vassals of Saudi Aramco and large corporations such as Boeing, the Bin Ladin Group, Siemens etc., Chameau bragged that the KAUST start-up rate matched top US universities and that the university staff had a low turnover rate.
He certainly didn’t have the university’s Innovation and Economic Development Department in mind when he made this statement. There has been a revolving door of people leaving because of the inept higher leadership.
In Technology Transfer, the department responsible for patents and commercialization, the former director, well loved by staff, doubled the disclosure invention rate (well above normal averages at universities) and was then unceremoniously pushed out the door by jealous higher ups. The second in command in Technology Transfer, also well loved by employees, left in January 2017.
In the past few months, numerous people in the department have left with more senior leadership planning to leave later in 2017. The university is hiring replacements, and it seems very unethical to be hiring people into such extreme dysfunction.
KAUST’s former vice president of Innovation and Economic Development, who left in October 2016, when not bragging about his science council links with president Barack Obama and trash-talking President Donald Trump, liked to mention that start-ups should fail or succeed quickly.
These were nice words, but why are most of the KAUST start-ups that were promoted in 2013 being promoted now? One Entrepeneurship Center colleague told me that many start-ups were on long-term life support. Recruited by Chameau as a so-called all-star candidate, the vice president stayed a year, attended a lot of luncheons, and accomplished very little.
Other serious problems in Economic Development include a failure to properly accredit people in the writing process, which should be taken very seriously at a so-called educational institution. I wrote a 25-page white paper that was presented in Moscow in October 2016 in someone else’s name.
Saudi Arabia was one of the last countries in the world to outlaw slavery – in 1962. Yet, KAUST would hardly function without an army of foreign manual workers that work in humiliating conditions.
This concept of slavery is even extended to the students. Entrepreneurship and innovation may be key buzzwords used everywhere at the university, but executives at the university (outside of the Innovation and Economic Development Department) actually discourage students from entrepreneurial activities while studying. “We own you” is the phrase one senior official used. Seems that slavery is still very much alive in Saudi Arabia.
It is incredibly hypocritical that this so-called global institution compares itself to the House of Wisdom, which thrived because of multiculturalism, including Jewish scholars. During KAUST’s annual Parade of Nations, which supposedly celebrates diversity, there is no Israeli flag displayed. Nor are Jews of any nationality allowed to work in Saudi Arabia – new employees need to provide a notarized letter stating their religion to get a work visa.
This is interesting considering the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology is the premier science and technology institution in the Middle East and that Israel’s success in nurturing start-ups is globally recognized, as anyone who has read Startup Nation will attest to. How can it claim to be a global institution with such an exclusionary policy?
Saudis recognize the need to diversify and liberalize and may have taken recent steps to do so, such as joining the WTO in the mid 2000s, releasing the Vision 2030 strategy earlier this year and selling part of Saudi Aramco to create a wealth fund aimed at diversification, etc. With part of Saudi Aramco being publicly floated and calls for increasing transparency to attract foreign investors, Saudi Arabia may need to attract more talent from overseas.
Unfortunately, with KAUST’s economic development efforts as a perfect example, unless the local capacity is enhanced significantly, the risk is that it will be badly led by foreign mercenaries, especially American academics who would prefer to criticize their own country and values (the former vice president in Economic Development trashed Trump at every opportunity) than look at Saudi Arabia’s myriad of abuses.
Even in this environment of dysfunction, there are Saudis that are making a real difference. My female Saudi associate in the vice president’s office, leaving a few months after I arrived, thoroughly disgusted with the place after years of service, was one of the best teachers I have ever encountered. With such strong local women helping to shape a new Saudi Arabia, the country could have a bright future.
Saudi Arabia may flog human rights activists such as Raif Badawi, bomb innocents in Yemen and oppress its female population, but progress is being made incrementally, with KAUST supposedly being the vanguard for this. However, the change has to come from within, and mercenary, unprincipled and self-serving foreign leadership, so evident at KAUST, is not really contributing to the longterm development of the kingdom.
Despite Abdullah’s lofty ambitions, the university is a testament to how unlimited amounts of money, unaccountability, and a mercenary foreign leadership are doing nothing to achieve king Abdullah’s vision.
He would be turning over in his grave if he knew what had happened to his dream.
The author, a graduate of the London School of Economics, worked in the vice president’s office in the Innovation and Economic Development Department at KAUST in 2015 and 2016. Before that, he worked for the government of British Columbia for seven years as a senior adviser in international trade policy, participating in Canada-EU CETA negotiations.
He now lives in Europe, working in the science and tech sector.