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.