back from Kaust

Kaust panorma

Before the holidays I had a short stint working out at GMSV@Kaust, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi. I've written down a few notes about life at this crazy place:-

My initial impression was of the the amazing academic facilities. There are great offices, a visualization suite, 3d printing facilities and a super computer (which they seem to be trying to find a use for). As you'd expect for a university with a $10bn endowment, the buildings are beautiful - sweeping open atriums and harbour-views from many of the offices.

The campus itself has the feel of American suburbia - all speed bumps and sprinklers. Very nice, very liveable, but a little fake if you're European. While I was there I lived in several places -
  • The Kaust Inn (photos) - the campus hotel, same as any hotel anywhere. Watch out for the rooms at the back which point towards the grand mosque and its 5.30am prayer calls.
  • A one bedroom flat (photos) - A one bedroom flat on the island. Loads of space for entertaining guests, a good sized kitchen, and a study. Plenty enough room for a (European?!) couple.
  • A four bedroom house (photos) - Towards the end of my stay the research group rented one of the big colonial-style houses on the beach. (Due to some technicalities I had it to myself for most of my time there). This is a fantastic place that would normally be reserved for full Professors and their families. A sofa for every day of the week, waking up to eat breakfast overlooking the beach and the waves breaking on the reef.
The university has done a fantastic job of marketing and advertising itself. It is hard to find something on campus that isn't branded with the university's "unity seeds" logo.

Kaust made me reassess one of my old prejudices - old universities are good universities. Although I must have always realised that this was false, this place is a brilliant data point proving the contrary. The campus is three years old, has a formidable faculty and has forged (bought) alliances with the great and the good (CambridgeCornell, Oxford, Stanford...)

I think a spell at Kaust would look very good on anyone's CV. In particular for people looking for a fast track to high level research, or as a cheap way to get a graduate degree (the two year long Master's courses comes with a ~USD2000/mo scholarship).

There's several moral considerations that people should be concious of in Saudi. As well as the well known country-wide issues of civil liberties and women's rights (which are better documented elsewhere), there are also issues that are very pronounced on Campus -
  • I was also surprised at how many times I had to sign a bit of paper that threatened to kill me. Both the visa and customs paperwork make it clear that the death penalty is in use. While slightly tarnishing the Arabian hospitality of lore, this is still true of plenty of other countries (cough cough USA). This was something that was always in my mind when travelling to Saudi and added to the traveller's anxiety more than it should. My concerns seem to be unfounded - Sharia law isn't enforced on the campus, and I'm sure that 90% of the academic staff would quit if anyone lost a hand after being accused of theft (writing of the investment in the universitiy overnight).
  • The campus is kept clean and spotless by an army of (relatively) poorly paid foreigners. Mainly Indian and Filipino; These guys are driven in from Jeddah every morning, or live in gritty looking housing on the other side of campus. I guess while I realise that the world is a very unfair place, and I have my share of sweat-shop trainers, I wasn't expecting to have this reality thrown at me every day.
    employee housing?

  • Saudi is historically suspicious, if not outright hostile, to outsiders. I did find myself asking if this kind of knowledge transfer is really moral if the country doesn't want to integrate with the rest of the world. For example there are no tourist visas available to Saudi, unlike many other Middle-Eastern countries, and most of the foreign workers find themselves living in gated communities away from the locals. The attitude to foreign workers seems to work, get paid, stay quiet, then get out.
  • However green the campus claims to be, the building refuse discarded on the other side of the motorways says otherwise. It is very unnatural to live the (24-7-air-con) American dream in the middle of the desert, and however well designed the campus' buildings are, there must be a significant environmental cost. Add to this the 100 mile drive to escape the campus, or air travel to escape the desert (at regular intervals if you want to remain sane), and it is possibly not the most environmentally sound living location.
The campus is modeled on American suburbia - after you pass the tank traps and security checks you find yourself in a very safe feeling environment. Palm trees (watered by the eternally present sprinkler systems) line the streets, and there's plenty of green open spaces (a couple of parks and a golf course). The supermarket is 15 minutes walk from anywhere on campus and is stocked to placate people from most parts of the world - Froot Loops for the Americans, Leerdammer and Emmental for the europeans, a reasonable wheat-free section and even beef-bacon for those with pig-withdrawal symptoms. Of course there's no beer, and occasional supply problems (the campus ran out of peanut m&m's!). Most critically, there was no dark chocolate - a certain prerequisite for doing research of any quality...

The feeling of cargo-cult westernism seems to permeate a lot of the campus. For example the workers in the supermarket wear disposable gloves when working with raw meat, but don't take the gloves off to pass you a piece of cheese. The fast food places in the malls in Jeddah (90 minutes on the frequent Kaust buses) are the slowest I've ever seen. The airport is another great example - there's been no checks for liquids, and was marched in a group of 20 passengers backwards through security (and the metal detectors) after a flight was cancelled. There's also the occasional path to nowhere, or bathroom sinks positioned to make the toilet impossible to sit on if you're over 5ft tall. This is a great blog detailing life on the early Kaust campus, including the epic floods!

My number one gripe was the feeling of being stuck on campus. As a gated community, there was a lot to do on the campus - a medium sized gum, windsurfing, snorkling trips, and a coed (racy!) beach. People who had families, and spent their time socializing with (sober) friends, seemed to get on fine with the setup. However I'm used to heading out at weekends and blowing of steam on 150km bike rides, and there was nothing that I found to come close to this - the roads were too large (and unsafe - almost all the cars looked like they'd been in some sort of collision in the last 6mo) to cycle on, and there were no real organised outdoor activities (no hiking, orienteering, or even yachting). If you so much as sail the rental dingy more than a few hundred meters from the beach, the coastguard comes and picks you up. While there's a great choice of stuff to do on campus, it is just that - a choice between several watersports. After a few weeks, all this left me feeling more than a bit trapped.

Still, when all is said and done, Kaust (not to be confused with ECUSTHKUST, KNUST or KUST) is a refreshing change to trying to do academia in the UK, where career advancement is difficult and basic funding is in question after the government pulled funding for most of the mathematics postdocs. The campus, and its sunsets, are really beautiful, and well worth visiting!

Moon, Beacon