Saudi Arabia: Graduate University Launched With $10 Billion Endowment

Posted on June 11, 2007


Jeffrey Mervis

Saudi Arabia is using some of its vast oil wealth to create what it hopes will be a world-class graduate research institution.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009, will have a $10 billion endowment–the sixth largest in the world. Although the university won’t open for more than 2 years, officials said this week that they will prime the pump by awarding some 500 undergraduate scholarships this year and next to students around the world, with the understanding that the recipients will form KAUST’s inaugural classes. They are also launching a $100-million-a-year global research partnership program to fund work by scientists who agree to become affiliated with the new university.

“We realized that we cannot wait until when we open, in September 2009, to begin our research program,” says Nadhmi Al-Nasr, KAUST’s interim president. “We also wanted to find researchers working on things that have the potential to benefit Saudi Arabia.”

The university is the brainchild of the country’s current ruler. It’s being built from scratch on a tract along the Red Sea, some 80 km north of Jeddah. The project, which includes constructing a surrounding city of 15,000, was given to Saudi Aramco, the government-owned oil giant, and is being overseen by the Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. But once completed, the university will be financially and administratively independent of the Saudi government, says Al-Nasr, who’s on leave from his post as vice president for engineering at Saudi Aramco.

“KAUST will have its own governing board of trustees as well as its own endowment,” he explains. Government officials also decided to place it outside the purview of the ministry of higher education. “The kingdom is in the midst of reassessing its entire system of higher education,” Al-Nasr explains. “So it would not make sense to try to build KAUST within the existing bureaucracy.”

The university will be organized around multidisciplinary research institutes. The initial ones will encompass energy and the environment, biosciences and engineering, materials science and engineering, and applied mathematics and computational science. Accordingly, the first round of global partnerships will lure faculty members by tackling challenges such as desalination, carbon capture and hydrogen-rich fuels, and computational linguistics.

KAUST has hired some academic heavyweights to help it jump-start the school. [more]