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Communications of the ACM

Arab World special section: Hot topics

Building a Research University in the Arab Region: The Case of KAUST

KAUST campus

Credit: Walter P Moore

The establishment of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in 2009 was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of its founder, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. His vision for the university was deeply rooted in the historical and cultural contexts of the Middle East. He intended the university to be seen as a revival of the old "house of wisdom," which was a premier institution of learning in Baghdad from the 9th century until the 13th century. Starting as a private library of the fabled Caliph Harun Al-Rasheed, it developed quickly into the 9th century equivalent of a research laboratory and a university. The house of wisdom was the birthplace of algebra and was a milieu where many developments took place in various fields of science and humanities. It was sponsored generously by the Abbasid Caliphate and welcomed any knowledge seeker regardless of ethnic origin, religious beliefs, or sex.2 Its rise and fall coincide respectively with the start and end of the golden age of the Islamic civilization.

The first two professors to join the university were high-profile computational scientists, and the university procured a supercomputer even before it opened.

The king's vision was to establish a modern university that selectively picks from the best practices of modern, western universities. The model of the university was inspired by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in terms of its size and focus on STEM. The university's original research vision sought to focus on four major challenges that face the kingdom (and humanity at large), namely, food, water, energy and the environment.


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