“Having an interesting meeting with an Egyptian entrepreneur.”
Michael Slackman's article in today's @NYTimes poses some interesting questions about KAUST, its impact on Saudi society and indeed the future of the Kingdom. I've posted on KAUST recently, noting the progress it represents in its approach to curriculum and the classroom. (There are no departments, professors are given contracts instead of tenure, and most importantly, classes are Coed.) Slackman describes these as well, but questions their influence on society beyond the walls of the gated KAUST community. He cites the experience of Saudi Aramco (the company built KAUST, instead of the Ministry of Higher Education). Although Aramco has been present in the Kingdom nearly as long as anyone's been drilling oil there, its Western cultural norms do not transcend the walls of the Aramco compound.
As Slackman points out, there are many reasons for this, not least of which the conservative nature of Saudi society. It will be interesting to watch KAUST and its reception in Saudi Arabia. The question is whether this is the beginning of a revolution, evolution or just another walled garden.
“Entrepreneurship isn't "American." The US has more oppty. We need to help unleash entrepreneurship all over the world. RT@endeavoringE #fb”
@Jason, first, thank you for taking the time to read my blog and comment on it. To your point, I wouldn't begin to suggest that there aren't problems with Islamic Fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. I don't have any time for that, just as I have no tolerance for right-wing Zionists or wing-nut Christian Fundamentalists in this country. But viewing the Middle East through that lens alone means you miss an awful lot of what's going on. And isolationism is not a solution.
@Jason, you above anyone should understand the power of entrepreneurs to transform lives. President Obama sees it as well. OPIC's Global Technology and Innovation Fund is an effort to help cultivate a generation of young Arab entrepreneurs who will reach beyond the fundamentalism and violence and help build a more diverse, productive Middle East. Organizations like @SkollFoundation and @Endeavor_global along with various private sector groups are working with local incubators, angel investors and funds to help catalyze entrepreneurial activity across the region. And the governments of the Arab States have made substantial commitments to the development of the IT sectors in their economies. Some of these countries are stretching (both economically and socially) to make this change, but they know it's in their best interest - and ours.
The average person in Egypt lives on $3 USD per day. Out of the 80M Egyptians, some 250,000 graduate from college each year, usually at great cost and with tremendous personal sacrifice. With double-digit unemployment, these newly minted doctors and engineers often end up driving cabs, instead of working in their chosen professions. Without good salaries they can't afford to get apartments. Without a home, they cannot get married. And so they become vulnerable to the recruiting efforts of various unsavory groups in the region.
Investing in young Arab entrepreneurs isn't just good business, it serves higher-order goals of offering greater hope and possibilities to the many, many talented young Arabs who often see no other path than through the Mosque to the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Qaeda.
@AmbassadorNed has had a career of nearly 4 decades in the Middle East, in Israel and across the the Arab States. He's seen tremendous evolution as well as social and economic reform in that time. For the past several years I've been working with and mentoring young Arab entrepreneurs who are every bit as talented as their American counterparts. Let us try to change your mind about what's going on in the Middle East and the positive impact people like us can have on the region. In the end, we all want the same things: peace, happy families, and the chance to be part of the next really big idea.
I first learned about KAUST a few years ago, from a senior executive at Saudi Aramco. The school is intended to be the first indigenous, world-class, science and technology institution in the Arab States. Its goal is to address the serious issues in Saudi Arabia (and elsewhere in the region) of the youth bulge (an enormous percentage of the Arab population is under the age of 20), the need to diversify economies, and the use of science and technology as a means to do just that, as well as to create more high-value jobs.
However, KAUST reaches beyond pure economics to culture shifts in several critical areas. King Abdullah chose to have Saudi Aramco build the university versus charging the Minister of Education with the task. That contravened the Saudi tradition of having clerics dictate curriculum as some of the conservative religious leaders made quite clear. (One cleric in particular, Sheikh al Shethri, made his complaints on Saudi television, and was promptly fired from his position by Royal Decree.)
Another, in some ways more groundbreaking change, is the introduction of COED classes. To those of us from the West that may seem very 19th century. To the Saudis this is an enormous change and questioned not just by the religious establishment but also by the average man-on-the-street.
Many Saudi scholars question whether this is too much, too fast. As my husband, @AmbassadorNed, a career diplomat who served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Saudi Arabia says, he hopes the King is not "getting out in front" of his people, who are very traditional and culturally conservative.
Whether or not you agree with the Saudi's or have empathy to their goals, you have to admit they put their money where their mouth is. With a $10B endowment they can do a lot to develop world-class programs and ingratiate themselves with the locals.
I think this is a welcome addition to the growing science and technology sector in the Arab States. The Arabic Digital Economy is nascent, with less than 1% of all online content in Arabic - less than the amount of online content in Czech. IT Ministries around the region are making headway in terms of incubators and entrepreneur programs. The problem they have is supply, not demand. They need to increase the number of local technology stars and catalyze the development of a vibrant, entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Beyond capital returns, the benefits to civil society are enormous. Every young Saudi or Egyptian who enjoys success as an entrepreneur is one less recruit for Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. The President knows this, and made a point of highlighting the need to support the Arab technology sector in his June speech in Cairo.
Joe Nye called this kind of thing "soft power". Secretary Clinton calls it "smart power". Others may call it smart business - tapping into new markets that are ripe for the picking. Personally, I don't care what you call it, as long as it works!