Thuwal, Saudi Arabia — The $12.5 billion question is this: Can Ben Frevert change Saudi Arabia?
Frevert is 22 years old. He is from Minneapolis. He had never set foot outside the United States until the day he flew to Saudi Arabia, where he became one of the first 400 graduate students to start classes at the sparkling new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology on the Red Sea.
Frevert’s presence in this conservative kingdom represents a bold, pricey gamble by Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Abdullah, who allocated about $10 billion to endow the university. The stated goal is to take a country that consistently ranks among the poorest-performing nations in education and, with all the brain power and high-tech equipment oil money can buy, build a world-class research center and university.
But there is a less discussed, yet no less consequential, objective: Can the university help this tradition-bound society become more open to new ideas? Can it help Saudi Arabia stamp out the kind of homegrown extremism that has spawned terrorism?
“We wouldn’t see change without having more things like this,” said Awadh al-Badi, a political scientist at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. “My thought is that they are trying to create a parallel system, that with time would take from others or balance what exists.”
The first 400 students and 74 faculty members began studies in September, even as construction crews labored to ready the multibillion-dollar campus. In time, the university will be a small town of 20,000, cloistered behind three layers of security, in isolated luxury on the banks of the Red Sea. There will be a yacht club, a golf course, a movie theater (there are no theaters allowed in the kingdom), a town center with fast food and shops — and there will be no rules against men and women working, studying and socializing together. On campus, women do not have to cover up and wear the baggy black gown, called an abaya, mandatory everywhere else in Saudi Arabia.
Because of this, the university is in a rush, hoping to establish itself as a source of pride — and perhaps revenue — before conservative forces beyond its walls try to rein it in.
Not long after the lavish opening ceremony with thousands of guests and dozens of heads of state, a member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, an official body appointed by the king, criticized the university. Most of the uproar focused on his condemnation of “mingling,” which he called “a great depravity.” But the critic, Sheik Saad al-Shathry, also called for the creation of a religious committee to ensure that the curriculum was consistent with Islam.
King Abdullah promptly, and with great effect, fired Shathry from the council. But at the university, some staff members and students said they were wondering how long they had before the king decided, for political expediency, that he must bow to the nation’s powerful religious forces.
And what happens when the king is gone? He is 85, and it appears that the next in line is not Crown Prince Sultan, who has been out of the country for months after cancer treatment, but the interior minister, Prince Naif, whose political base has been the nation’s conservative religious community.
“We have a leader who is willing to take the furthest step, but is it a policy of the country or just the leader?” asked Badi, the political scientist. “That issue is not resolved.”
And there is reason for concern. Even though the king fired Shathry, demonstrating his commitment to the university, his critics have not been silenced.
“Those voices calling for opening up are strange voices that do not represent public opinion,” said Soliman al-Duwaish, a Saudi preacher who said that the mingling of men and women at the university was a “blemish” on the king’s “dream.”
The idea of trying to foster change by building enclaves like the university is not new. Even in an absolute monarchy, public sensitivities and political alliances cannot be ignored. So the leadership tries to promote change from the outside in. The royal family has relied on the outside-in approach for years. It has two pan-Arab newspapers in London and a satellite television station, Al Arabiya, in Dubai. Not far from the university, crews are building the King Abdullah Economic City, which like the university will allow residents to live a more Western life — behind a cordon of security. And there is Aramco, the nation’s oil company, which operates almost as another state and has been credited with liberalizing and modernizing eastern Saudi Arabia.
But that, many people here say, is exactly the problem. Aramco changed its community but had little effect beyond that.
“You cannot bring change from the outside, you have to build it from within,” said Saleha M. Abedin, vice dean of a women’s college, Dar al-Hekma, in Jidda, 80 kilometers away. “All our programs and our curricula have sensitivity to local needs. It is not a totally foreign institution that doesn’t realize the reality on the ground.”
On campus at the university recently, Frevert, the student from Minneapolis, was in the library curled around his laptop. He had been there, he said, exactly two months and three days and had visited Jidda a few times. But when he had the chance to take time off, he said, he flew to Dubai.
His parents, he said “were a little freaked out” when he decided to study in Saudi Arabia. But he was enticed by the financial aid and the adventure. The kingdom paid for the last two years of his undergraduate education and, as it does for all its students, waived tuition, provided free room and board, and gave him a stipend. Frevert said he was studying solid-state optics, and while obligated to complete his master’s degree, he said he had already decided that he would be heading back to the United States for his doctorate.
“My mother will sleep better, at last,” he wrote in a recent blog entry.