Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

A new turn for Saudi Arabia’s education dreams

When the Gulf States of the Middle East decided it was high time to invest their petrodollars in science and research, each one came up with it’s own approach.

At the heart of it, all the countries have a grander, similar aim: to attract Western academia to their local institutes to jump-start their “science renaissance” back home. The task is easier said than done, however. Apart from large funding, there was not much to attract the best minds to leave the West and live in the Middle East.

Waleed El-Shobakky, a science journalist who has studied the education landscape in the Middle East extensively, outlines the different patterns that each country employed to go about achieving that target.

Qatar spear-headed the movement to convince world-renowned research institutes to open branch campuses in the small, natural gas-rich state. Doha’s Education City is home to campuses of Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Texas A&M’s school of engineering, amongst others.

Saudi Arabia, however, went into a completely different direction. Instead of opting for local branches of these international universities, the largest Gulf country created the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Their plan was to enter into partnerships with a wide selection of Western institutes, funding researchers in their home countries, only asking them to visit for a few weeks each year to give workshops and symposiums for KAUST faculty and students.

While the two models stand in contrast, it is hard to gauge which is more successful so far. Each has its positives and its shortcomings.

Now, however, Saudi Arabia is shifting from its previous position. They have opted to diversify their approach to boosting science by emulating neighbouring Qatar’s model as well.

The Financial Times reports that Saudi Arabia’s General Investment Authority signed a letter of intent with the United State’s Georgia Institute of Technology to build a centre to provide applied research degrees in the Kingdom. This will be the first foreign-accredited, postgraduate research degree in the country.

This does not in any way amount to admission that the KAUST model has failed. On the contrary, KAUST remains the country’s foremost research institute. As reported earlier in this blog, they have already scored four Nature papers in less than a year. That is a feat to be respected, regardless of who are the nationality of the researchers who actually worked on the paper.

However, the Kingdom still suffers of brain drain. People are still leaving the country to study aboard – and usually not coming back. Maybe this latest approach is an attempt by the government to retain these smart minds. Offering the applied degrees is also an attempt to increase the quality of the workforce, to counter the Kingdom’s increasing unemployment.

Or maybe it is just an attempt to diversify the options. After all, putting all your eggs in one basket is usually not the smartest option. This is especially true in the volatile Middle East.


  1. Report this comment

    reader said:

    “the Kingdom still suffers of brain drain. People are still leaving the country to study aboard – and usually not coming back”

    Is that true?

  2. Report this comment

    Mohammed Yahia said:

    Until now this is true.

    Several professors in some of Saudi Arabia’s biggest universities such as King Saud University and King Abdallah University say that the pattern has not reversed, even if it has slightly slowed.

  3. Report this comment

    reader said:

    I noticed that most of Saudi Professors in major universities in KSA are educated in the US and Europe where they earned their PhDs. Apparently they went back to their home, so I don’t understand what do you mean by brain drain. You should cite your data source accurately to support your claims. I hope KAUST will reverse the brain drain you’re talking about.

  4. Report this comment

    Mohammed Yahia said:

    Many (not most) of Saudi professors are indeed graduated from US and EU universities and have returned to their home country afterwards.

    However, in 2010 there were over 30,000 Saudi students studying in the US alone, not to mention Europe.

    If you compare the sheer number of people who travel to the West for education to those who return you will notice the brain drain.

    It is very easy to find sources for this information, such as here or here/a>.

    I’m not sure if you live in Saudi Arabia or not, but if you do, a chat with any faculty member in one of the bigger universities will confirm this trend.

    Like you, however, I’m really hopeful KAUST (as well as other universities improving their rankings) would play a part in reversing the brain drain trend

  5. Report this comment

    reader said:

    I’m sure the imigrating KSA scientist you’re talking about will decide to go back one day to Kaust to continue their serious research activites so the brain drain will get sealed and drainage stop.

  6. Report this comment

    Mohammed Yahia said:

    I am hopeful KAUST may be able to contribute positively to reversing the brain drain in Saudi Arabia.

    Though it is important to note that one institute is not enough to completely reverse the trend. There should be a bigger, orchestrated movement to provide Saudi Arabian students opportunities at home that rival those they get from the West.

    Thankfully, this appears to be the approach Saudi Arabia is taking.