INTERVIEW: KAUST’s plan to recreate classical Islam’s ‘House of Wisdom’

Exclusive INTERVIEW: KAUST’s plan to recreate classical Islam’s ‘House of Wisdom’
Illustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 28 October 2019

INTERVIEW: KAUST’s plan to recreate classical Islam’s ‘House of Wisdom’

INTERVIEW: KAUST’s plan to recreate classical Islam’s ‘House of Wisdom’
  • Tony Chan, president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, explains its role in advancing human knowledge — and in supporting the Vision 2030 transformation

DUBAI: The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) throws up some big surprises on a visit to the campus, an hour’s drive north of Jeddah.

Expecting a white-hot furnace of high technology — what staff call the “deep tech heart of the Saudi Arabian economy” — you find yourself marveling at replicas of 1,000 year old inventions — navigational instruments, hydraulic systems and sophisticated chronometers — from the golden age of Islamic learning, in the campus museum.

That juxtaposition is entirely deliberate and appropriate, as Tony Chan, president of KAUST for the past year, explained. “The idea was to recreate the Bayt Al-Hikmah — the House of Wisdom — of classical Islam’s golden age, and to contribute to human civilization,” he said.

Chan, of Hong Kong origin and with a prodigious career mainly spent at US institutions, has been involved with KAUST since before it was formally inaugurated just over 10 years ago, and is in a unique position to describe its long heritage, as well as its modern role as an intellectual power-house for the big changes across the Kingdom’s economy, society and culture as the Vision 2030 strategy progresses.

In some ways, KAUST’s establishment was a herald of the current transformation. It was the first coeducational institutional facility in Saudi Arabia, where women did not have to wear traditional clothing on campus, could drive and watch movies at a cinema alongside men, years before those advances came to the Kingdom.

“We are like a beacon to the world,” said Chan, in reference to the symbolic lighthouse structure that overlooks the KAUST marina on the Red Sea.

With these modern facilities, its cosmopolitan population and its emphasis on technology, the site is reminiscent of the Saudi Aramco “camp” in Dhahran — the American-built town that housed the first foreign oil workers in the 1950s.

Originally funded by a $20 billion government endowment, the project was handed over to Ali Al-Naimi, the former Aramco chief executive and Saudi energy minister, to oversee. Chan says that Aramco built the main part of the campus in 1,000 days, in time for the 2009 opening.

“KAUST has Aramco in its DNA in terms of organizational structure and culture, adapted to an academic environment,” he said.

Aramco is one of the corporates — along with the likes of SABIC, the US chemical company Dow and the aerospace group Boeing — with a presence on the campus. KAUST is as much an environment intended to cultivate entrepreneurial innovation as an institute of learning.

“There is a strong business emphasis here, in terms of encouraging startups and entrepreneurial talent. There is a two-way emphasis — to advance research and education, and to facilitate economic development and human capital, in line with Vision 2030,” Chan said.

Some 2,000 would-be Saudi entrepreneurs pass through the university each year, emerging equipped to play a role in the Kingdom’s fast-changing economy. Research has shown that as many as 30 percent of young citizens want to start their own businesses, rather than go for the traditional jobs in the public sector. KAUST plays a vital tole in encouraging and nurturing this young talent.

It is not a university in the traditional sense, with an annual influx of fresher undergraduates. All of the 1,100 students on campus are postgraduates, as well as 337 research scientists, under the supervision of 159 faculty members on the site at Thuwal.

That environment is designed to encourage intellectual innovation, and to back up the megaprojects under way in Saudi Arabia under Vision 2030.

Because of its location, KAUST is particularly involved in the two big projects in the area — the Red Sea development and NEOM.

The former — underway a couple of hundred kilometers north on the coast — is one of the most ambitious ventures ever taken in leisure and high-end tourism. It will be a self-sustaining resort the size of Belgium, designed to give global and regional visitors a taste of the Kingdom’s seldom-seen ecological and cultural heritage.

“We are working on four areas with them — energy, environment, food and water. And we are involved in their digital aspects too. These are global issues of course, but they are all of especial interest to the Kingdom,” Chan said.

Some of the work with the Red Sea Project is truly groundbreaking, with applications all over the world, he explained. “Sea plants — kelp, seaweed and the rest — are better at absorbing carbon than land plants, so that could provide a solution to global environmental challenges.

One focus of KAUST’s work in the Red Sea involves the project to reduce salinity in the area, a big issue for the Kingdom because of the high levels of salt produced in the water desalination industry. The “brains for brine” initiative could have truly global impact. 

KAUST’s work also has big significance in energy issues. “We’re looking at ways to analyze the wind patterns across the Red Sea, because if you are going to use wind power as a significant part of your renewable commitment, you need to know how the wind works in that particular region,” he said.

“We have a big focus on energy — not just petroleum, but solar and other renewables. Oil is not going away any time soon, but we have to be conscious of the effects of climate change, which affects the Kingdom more than most others,” Chan said.

“Clean combustion is the big thing. We have a research partnership with McLaren, working on fuel mix and aerodynamics to make engines more efficient, and with Volvo and others in our ‘clean combustion’ center,” he added.

A former president of the university — Chan’s predecessor Nadhmi Al-Nasr — is chief executive of NEOM, and the links with KAUST run deep. “NEOM is different from the Red Sea. It’s not a leisure resort so there are far more artificial intelligence, digital and educational angles to it. There is a NEOM centre at KAUST, and I sit on NEOM’s high commission. We have contributed lots of people and talent to NEOM and several run the different sectors involved in the project,” Chan said.

Another major activity at KAUST involves the preparations for the G20 Summit next year, which the Kingdom is staging, the first time the gathering or world leaders will be held in the Middle East. Chan is involved in the scientific sub-grouping of the G20, the so-called S20, and he sees the event, which will take place next November, as a pivotal moment in its history.

“We have become a think tank within the G20 preparations, in the S20 group, working mainly on energy and climate matters. We have the expertise. The Kingdom, and the world, need the expertise. The whole of the Saudi government is involved in the G20 preparations — it will be like a coming out party for the Kingdom,” he said.

Chan’s background encompassed some of the biggest academic institutions in Asia and the US, and he is especially keen to attract global talent to be part of the KAUST community, which has 100 nationalities in the 7,300-strong campus site.

“It has not been hard to attract talent. Usually, the most difficult part is to get prospective talent to make the first visit. I have seen no reaction to the death of Jamal Khashoggi. We are still recruiting from the US and the rest of the world, and there has been no adverse affect from that tragic event,” Chan said.

Attracting that talent will help achieve Chan’s goal — to make KAUST a center of academic excellence along the lines of the biggest and best-known institutions in the world. How will he know when he has achieved that?

“It is not just about ranking in the academic league tables, although that is part of it. We focus on talent development, and on knowledge —adding to the sum of human knowledge. But we do very well on the criteria of ‘citation by faculty,’” he said.

“The most important measure of our success is by the achievements of our alumni. Why are Oxford and Cambridge regarded as so successful? Because Oxford turns out more prime ministers than any other university, and Cambridge more Nobel Prize winners.

“We are still a very young organization. The oldest of our alumni is still under 40, so it will take a while to get the professional recognition. But I am confident it will come.”