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Robert Lacey is a British historian noted for his original research, which gets him close to - and often living alongside - his subjects. He is the author of numerous[…]

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently opened a major research university, KAUST, with an endowment to rival Harvard’s. Will it help lead Saudi Arabia to Western-style modernism?

Question: What impact will King Abdullah’s new university have?

Robert Lacey: A few weeks ago I went to the opening of King Abdullah’s new university. It’s called KAUST, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and it’s supposed to rival MIT. It’s supposed to be an Arab MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It already has the second largest endowment of any university in the world, second only to Harvard. They’re trying to bring and have already brought some of the world’s great scientific researchers, mathematicians, not just to teach there, but to do research and bring students from all around the world. You can only go there if you’re a graduate student and in a way it was not like being in Saudi Arabia. There were young men and women mingling on the campus together. Now you never see that in Saudi Arabia. They have male campuses. They have female campuses. If there happens to be a male lecturer who lectures to women he does it rather like this, talking to a camera with the women in a room looking at him on a screen and when they want to ask him a question they have to press a buzzer. Most of us who were there felt this was a tremendous step forward for Saudi Arabia, but next day the television shows full of traditional old shakes complaining that the king was corrupting the country by having men and women mixing together on the campus, complaining that this university was going to teach science, no religion whatsoever. Saudi Arabia, one of the paradoxes of it is, and we see it with King Abdullah, King Abdullah is sort of like Saudi Arabia’s Obama. He is the embodiment of hope. He doesn’t always achieve what people hope, but he talks good talk. He clearly believes that he is trying to push Saudi Arabia into the modern age and this university is the -- one of the vehicles for it.

Question: If Saudi Arabia modernizes through education, will it become a force for regional peace?

Robert Lacey:  Saudi Arabia now does regard itself as a major force for peace in the big issue of Israel and Palestine and I would say they’re right about that. King Abdullah straight after 9/11 went to work to rally around the Arab states and get them to agree to what is known as the Arab Peace Initiative, which says, which offers Israel full normalization in return for the return of Palestinian land as it was formally defined with fairly vague language about what compensation and just settlement will be paid to the Palestinian refugees. Now as we -- and then having got this through the Arab nations with some difficulty he then convened an Islamic conference in 2005 and got the whole Muslim world to sign off, but one of the weird things about Saudi Arabia is that this older generation of old and fairly enlightened men trying to push the country forward is not matched by the mass of the population who are the Islamists, who are the guys who secretly cheer and not so secretly cheer for Bin Laden. Young Saudis, young Arabs who look on television everyday and see their brother Muslims getting beaten up by American troops -- now we know historically why the American troops have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Saudis just see -- the young Saudis in particular, see America as a nation that is waging war on Muslims, troops getting trained for the purpose of killing Muslims. They hear about videogames in which Arabs and dark skinned people are the victims and they see kids in America playing their videogames, joining the Army and putting it into practice in Islamic countries, so one of the problems for the future in Saudi Arabia is you can’t say oh, these extremists are old people who are going to die away and the enlightened young generation will take over. It’s sort of the opposite. The older generation remember 30 years ago women used to be able to water ski in ordinary swimming consumes. Now you sometimes see women waterskiing, it’s a bizarre sight, in abayas, black abayas and robes and things, but there has been this extraordinary regression in western terms and westernized, older Saudis remember that with some regret, so when people ask about the future of this society who knows.

I mean King Abdullah is a great believer in knowledge. He has taken that idea from the West. He had also taken it from the Islamic past. In the Islamic Golden Age soon after the time of the profit when learning let’s not forget, was kept alive by the Muslims. Words that we’ve got like algebra, logarithm, all this scientific knowledge, those particular words come from Arabic roots because it was Arabic scholars who kept all that going. They discovered the works of Plato and so on and preserved them so that the West could rediscover them later and so the Golden Age of Islam was an age of knowledge and King Abdullah is trying to achieve that. He sees his new university as the house of knowledge. There was a famous Bait al-Hikma, house of knowledge in early Islamic times which you know let’s not forget the first universities in the world were Al Qasr and other Arab universities and that’s the Golden age that he is trying to revive.

Now what is going to happen when these Saudi kids have been through all these universities and there is no jobs for them because that’s the challenge for Saudi Arabia? It’s a one product country and although it’s trying to diversify all the oil comes out of the ground. That’s another reason why there is not going to be democracy in Saudi Arabia for a long time because when your main source of income, your national resource is controlled by the government and there is no tax how do the people acquire rights? Traditionally in history we acquired our rights, America acquired its rights from Britain by saying no taxation without representation. Well Saudi Arabia is the most incredible welfare state. They’re not worried about socialized medicine. They get free healthcare. They get free education. When students get to university they get a scholarship, a monthly pay packet to pay their expenses, no fees. Now all of this comes from the oil. It’s a huge welfare state. So and the government controls it. The government controls their patronage and there is no many jobs associated with oil, so all these bright young graduates what are they going to do for jobs?

Recorded on:  October 20, 2009