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The Big Gamble in the Saudi Desert

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Science  16 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5951, pp. 354-357
DOI: 10.1126/science.326_354

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Three years ago, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia decided to set aside billions of dollars for an institution designed to help the country move from an oil-based to a knowledge economy. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is now perhaps the most-watched experiment in higher education taking place anywhere in the world. Its huge endowment is certainly an attention-getter: Two years ago, KAUST officials used a figure of $10 billion, although one knowledgeable source says the number is actually $20 billion. KAUST hopes eventually to be the size of the California Institute of Technology—roughly 250 faculty and 2500 students—and to rival it in prestige. It's also the first Saudi institution of higher education to allow men and women to mix freely. But that policy has already been criticized sharply by conservative clerics from the country's dominant Wahhabi school of Islam and promises to be a source of continuing tension.