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Can Saudi Arabia Build an MIT? $10 Billion Says "Yes" as Desert School Opens

THUWAL, SAUDI ARABIA—King Abdullah opened the kingdom of Saudi Arabia today to a throng of foreign dignitaries, government officials, scientists, and guests to show off his new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

The multi-billion dollar project is a graduate institution with designs on crashing a list of the world's top 20 research universities.  It's a tall order for a school that sits on a 32 sq. km. slab of desert that hugs the Red Sea north of Jeddah, the country's second largest city. But the 70-odd scientists that form the founding faculty—along with 400 students who began classes on 5 September—won't be lacking for money or equipment.

The king has put his considerable power and authority behind the university, a message reinforced by holding the inaugural ceremony on the country's National Day holiday. He's hoping that KAUST will help to move the country from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy, a task that the university's president, Choon Fong Shih, expresses with a simple formula: "Hire the best minds and find practical applications for their discoveries."

In addition to tapping $1.5 billion in core facilities that include the first supercomputer in the region, an industrial-class a nofabrication lab, a top-rated visualization center, and a dozen state-of-the-art nuclear magnetic resonance machines, faculty members will get from $400,000 to $800,000 apiece per year for 5 years to outfit and staff their labs.

The chance to spend their time on research rather than grant applications has been a big drawing card, say faculty members, who come from around the world: About 20% hail from the United States, and another 30% left jobs in Germany, Canada, and China to come to KAUST. The student body is equally diverse geographically:  Saudis comprise about 15% of the first class, followed closely by China, Mexico, and the United States. The school's endowment is $10 billion.

In addition the being the first university in the country to allow the mixing of men and women in both the classroom and the lab, KAUST has abandoned the usual departments in favor of interdisciplinary research centers. Each center targets an important challenge for the country, from improved desalination techniques and growing crops resistant to drought and salt to the massive production and distribution of solar energy. It also plans to examine all facets of the Red Sea ecosystem, a relatively unexplored body of water.

Speaking at the inauguration, Shih predicted success within a generation. "I can see the cover of The Economist in its issue of September 2029. 'Sea water and solar power green the desert. KAUST scientists and entrepreneurs tell their story.' " The proof will come in publications, patents, and products. But few in the audience are betting against him.