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  • Saudi science powerhouse opens its doors

Saudi Arabia's highly-anticipated King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which houses one of the world's fastest supercomputers, officially opened its doors this week (23 September).

Located in the city of Thuwal on the Red Sea, KAUST is the country's first co-educational facility. According to Ali Ibrahim Al-Naimi, Saudi's minister of petroleum and mineral resources, the university will lead many aspects of economic development in the kingdom.

"We hope to be exporting as much solar energy as we are exporting oil in the future — KAUST research will be pivotal for that," said Al-Naimi, who is also chairman of the KAUST board of trustees.

KAUST boasts nine research centres specialising in areas such as water desalination, alternative energy, nanotechnology and stem cell research.

"KAUST is here to inspire a new age of scientific achievement," said Professor Choon Fong Shih, founding president of KAUST and former president of the highly respected research institution, the National University of Singapore.

To draw top researchers from around the world, KAUST has been forming partnerships with international research centres and universities since 2007 through its Global Collaborative Research (GCR) programme. Partners include Imperial College London, United Kingdom, and the global Dow Chemical Company.

"KAUST is based in Saudi Arabia but is a global university," said Shih. "Research in the 21st century cannot be an isolated endeavour. The big questions of our time are interdisciplinary."

Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, US, believes the GCR programme at KAUST will pay off. "Not everyone is willing to give up their job and move to Saudi Arabia but many researchers are quite happy to partner with an institution with great facilities," he told SciDev.Net.

Pintak stresses the importance of keeping politics and research separate at the new facility. "KAUST is already dramatically raising Saudi Arabia's profile in the research community. Critical to its success is the degree to which the government stays at arm's length."

KAUST was conceived 25 years ago by the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, as a means of modernising the country. It opens its doors this week to 349 students from around the world, and more than 60 scientists and researchers. It is expected to accommodate 2,000 students by 2020.

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