Making the Desert Bloom


An underreported story that is finally getting some ink in the US mainstream press is the redirection of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth to new, dare I say progressive, ventures. Most pundits are racing to catch up with the latest intellectual fads by decrying the “oil curse” that few have time to contemplate how the latest oil boom might actually provide the conditions for a new positive direction in Saudi Arabia.
But that is what appears to be happening according to the dean of a Saudi women’s college quoted in today’s cover article in the New York Times:

Suhair el-Qurashi, dean of the private all-female Dar Al Hekma College, often attacked as “bad” and “liberal,” said a vigorous example of free-thinking at the university would embolden the many Saudis who back the king’s quest to reform long-stagnant higher education.
“The king knows he will face some backlash and bad publicity,” Ms. Qurashi said. “I think the system is moving in the right direction.”

The story describes the efforts of King Abdullah to build a modern, state-of-the-art graduate university that would open its doors to foreign students as well as Saudi nationals:

On a marshy peninsula 50 miles from this Red Sea port, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is staking $12.5 billion on a gargantuan bid to catch up with the West in science and technology.
Between an oil refinery and the sea, the monarch is building from scratch a graduate research institution that will have one of the 10 largest endowments in the world, worth more than $10 billion.
Its planners say men and women will study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country’s notorious religious police will be barred and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom’s cultural and religious limits.
This undertaking is directly at odds with the kingdom’s religious establishment, which severely limits women’s rights and rejects coeducation and robust liberal inquiry as unthinkable.
For the new institution, the king has cut his own education ministry out the loop, hiring the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco to build the campus, create its curriculum and attract foreigners.
Supporters of what is to be called the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, wonder whether the king is simply building another gated island to be dominated by foreigners, like the compounds for oil industry workers that have existed here for decades, or creating an institution that will have a real impact on Saudi society and the rest of the Arab world.
“There are two Saudi Arabias,” said Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of Al Watan, a newspaper. “The question is which Saudi Arabia will take over.”
The king has broken taboos, declaring that the Arabs have fallen critically behind much of the modern world in intellectual achievement and that his country depends too much on oil and not enough on creating wealth through innovation.

Viewed in isolation, the story may read as a quaint anomaly — a King trying to make a desert bloom, guided by the adage “If you build it, they will come”.
But it is one data point in a series of micro-trends, a number of which I wrote about here, that includes fiscal and economic reform with accession into the WTO, heavy domestic investment in seven new economic cities to diversify the country’s nodes of power, the allocation of one-third of government jobs to women (on national economy grounds), a creation of space for critical public dialogue on governance, and veiled challenges to the religious establishment to gradual move them back into their corner. These are not easy efforts and they come in baby steps.
Do not hold your breath for a modernization “takeoff” as Walt Rostow formulated, but the days of a seemingly inert Saudi government are over. A colleague of mine once remarked that most analysts look at Saudi Arabia like an economist lamenting a recession in Silicon Valley in 1995, just before the dot-com boom. Examining the past two years will reveal a subtle fact: Saudi Arabia is on the move.
–Sameer Lalwani


4 comments on “Making the Desert Bloom

  1. JohnH says:

    I guess I wrote off the Anapolis summit too soon. It could accomplish something in a perverse sort of way:


  2. JohnH says:

    “Most of the mainstream press missed it, and her own website doesn’t mention it either…” Possibly because whatever Condi says or does is totally inconsequential. I can’t imagine why anyone is coming to Anapolis other than to shop in Washington and New York. At least Condi can provide valuable assistance in that endeavor.
    Sad to say, but Condi is unlikely to merit even a footnote in the pages of history.


  3. Carroll says:

    Speaking of the people that made the desert bloom on someone elses land with someone elses water and piles of someone elses money….we have a new twist in the Isr-Pal yada,yada.:
    Scott MacLeod of Time Magazine
    October 25, 2007 1:08
    Rice’s Fear of the One-State Solution
    Most of the mainstream press missed it, and her own website doesn’t mention it either, but Condi Rice dropped something of a bomb-shell during her testimony on the Middle East to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (video)
    The main substance of her prepared remarks on the upcoming Annapolis peace conference reflected significant support for the Palestinian side. In language that seemed a little blunter than usual, she stated categorically, “Israel must stop settlement expansion and remove unauthorized outposts.” Palestinian leader Abbas and Arab diplomats have been complaining that Israel’s settlement policy essentially is a sign of bad faith going into the peace conference.
    The bombshell came in the Q&A afterwards, when she warned that time was running out to negotiate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
    Our concern is growing that without a serious political prospect for the Palestinians that gives to moderate leaders a horizon that they can show to their people that indeed there is a two-state solution that is possible, we will lose the window for a two-state solution.
    The comment coming from the top American diplomat is important. It seemed to be both a sober American appraisal of the dire state of the peace process and a warning to Israel that it will have a profound problem on its hands down the road if it doesn’t seize the opportunity to make a deal with Abbas now.
    Rice is basically warning that trends may be moving in favor of Hamas, the prime advocate of a one-state solution to the problem. Israel will not accept signing its own death warrant to accomodate Hamas’s demand for one Arab Muslim state, of course. But another implication that can be read into Rice’s comment is that when the window for a two-state solution is closed, Israel will be faced with a demographic time tomb that threatens a Muslim majority within the land it controls. At that point, Israel would face a fateful conundrum: allow a democratic majority to rule, which would threaten Israel’s existence through the ballot box, or establish an unviable apartheid system thay would bring international isolation and probably collapse.
    –By Scott MacLeod/Dubai
    I hesitate to guess what this means. Hopefully it is a veiled threat to Israel to get serious or else. Maybe Bush is desperate for success on the Isr-Pal situtation, looking for anything he can point to as having accomplished during his reign of terror. He should know he can’t talk to terriers like Israel, just go ahead and slap some sanctions and bombs on them Georgie. Isn’t that our policy with countries that don’t do what we tell them?


  4. JohnH says:

    This would appear to be good news despite its unfortunate title. I thought that the phrase “making the desert bloom” was reserved by those other descendents of Abraham. What will AIPAC say? Won’t they feel threatened if others can make the desert bloom, too?


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