Unlocking the great potential of Saudi Arabia’s students

Unlocking the great potential of Saudi Arabia’s students

Building a robust and diverse economy is an important goal across the globe. Like many nations, Saudi Arabia recognizes that the education of its youth is critical to its future economic development. During my visits to the Kingdom over the past several years, I have been impressed with some of the exciting education initiatives that are under way. They are already helping the Kingdom unlock the intellectual and entrepreneurial potential of Saudi youth.
I am proud to be a member of the board of trustees of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This young university, founded in 2006, educates Saudi postgraduate students while producing world-leading research in science and technology. Since its founding, KAUST has educated almost 500 Saudi students, with another 100 in the 2016 cohort. The amazing research coming out of the university is having a positive impact on the Kingdom and the rest of the world. From discovering a new compound, named KAUST-7, that can separate propane and propylene at room temperature and ambient pressures, to modeling the movement and mortality of the elusive whale shark in the Red Sea, researchers at KAUST are contributing to the advancement of knowledge. 
The fact that 50 percent of KAUST’s Saudi students are female speaks of the university’s ability to tap into the great resource of talent in the Kingdom. Saudi students are cultivated from an early age, while additional talent comes from around the world, and the resulting diversity adds to the vibrant intellectual environment. 

Saudi Arabia has a rich heritage and, with continued smart investment in education, its youthful dynamism will help create an even brighter future.

Alice P. Gast

I recently had the opportunity to visit Mawhiba, the King Abdulaziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, which was started by King Abdullah. It is impressive. Under the program, gifted students from all over the country are brought together to attend special schools at third, sixth and ninth grades. Mawhiba students have demonstrated their ability to compete well in international programs such as the Regeneron Science Talent Search and International Science Olympiads. This nurturing of young talent is very exciting and important for lasting progress in the Kingdom. Mawhiba is also an important pipeline for the KAUST Gifted Student Program, the Kingdom’s pre-eminent scholarship program. Some of the KAUST gifted students are sent to the US for their undergraduate studies so that they can come to KAUST for graduate school. The first 13 of these students have matriculated to KAUST and there are 18 more joining this autumn, with another 470 in the pipeline. This bodes very well for the future.
Saudi scientists are contributing and collaborating around the world. A decade ago, researchers at Imperial College London, one of the world’s foremost centers for STEM and innovation, produced just one joint publication with a Saudi collaborator. This year, more than 100 joint papers have been published. Imperial academics are working with colleagues in Saudi Arabia in areas ranging from cancer research to entrepreneurship and clean energy to big data. You will see a similar story at other world top-10 universities like Caltech and Oxford. Investment in Saudi education, skills and training is transforming lives.
Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, the Saudi businessman and philanthropist, understands this. His social enterprise organization, Community Jameel, has touched countless lives, from Massachusetts to Medinah. One of his community programs has thus far facilitated and helped to create 100,000 jobs for Saudi women. Other ideas of his have provided seed funds for exciting Saudi entrepreneurs. 
The late King Abdullah’s wise pledge to fund any Saudi who wishes to study abroad is paying dividends. The excellence of Saudis who have studied abroad and returned to the Kingdom is raising standards and making international academic collaboration the norm. 
When I meet young Saudis at Imperial College London, I am struck by their entrepreneurial drive, their creative instincts and their willingness to lead. Imperial’s Saudi students embrace academic rigor. They mix with people from all over the world, forging friendships and contacts that last a lifetime. They take full advantage of London’s cultural offerings. Many start new businesses. 
I am also struck by their desire to use their abilities to help wider society. A group of talented scholars founded the Saudi Society at Imperial. In 2015, they managed the UK’s Saudi Student Conference, the country’s largest ever gathering of its kind. At the conference, hundreds of students presented the discoveries they had made during their postgraduate education in the UK. It brought home to me the wealth of young talent that Saudi Arabia enjoys. Their spirit of openness, intellectual curiosity and innovation enriches the world. 
I could not say it better than young KAUST graduate Shamael Al-Shuhail, who said during her 2014 commencement speech: “The development of KAUST made me feel that I too have the power to shape history.”
Saudi Arabia has a rich heritage. With continued smart investment in education, the Kingdom’s youthful dynamism will help create an even brighter future. 

  • Alice P. Gast is the President of Imperial College London. Twitter: @Alicegast

This article is part of a series on the future of education, published in collaboration with Community Jameel. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view