New Saudi University Appoints First President

January 13, 2008

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia’s much anticipated $10-billion university, has announced the appointment of its first president, Choon Fong Shih. Mr. Shih, who is president of the National University of Singapore, will assume the task of creating from scratch what Saudi Arabia hopes will become one of the world’s leading research institutions.

Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources, who is chairman of the university’s governing board, said in a written statement today that Mr. Shih was “the right person” to fulfill the vision for the new institution. The university, known as Kaust, is scheduled to open in September 2009.

Mr. Shih, who is expected to begin his presidency late this year, will face daunting challenges. Until recently, Saudi Arabia spent less than a quarter of 1 percent of its gross domestic product on scientific research. King Abdullah provided $10-billion of his own money to start the new institution, making it the sixth richest university in the world even before it opens.

Despite having millions of dollars at his disposal, Mr. Shih will face the difficult challenge of recruiting top faculty members to one of the most socially conservative countries in the world, balancing the freedom and openness required for a world-class research university with the more traditional forces in Saudi society.

The new president touched on those challenges in his acceptance message today. “This community will be international, encompassing people from all faiths, from all over the world,” he said. “This openness to talented individuals of outstanding ability will be the hallmark of this new university and the best guarantee it offers for achieving its remarkable goals.”

Mr. Shih, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and is a former professor of engineering at Brown University, has also led a research group for the General Electric Company and has served as a consultant for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is the author of almost 150 scholarly publications, making him among the world’s most highly cited engineering researchers, according to the Institute for Scientific Information, and he has received numerous awards.

Kaust hopes that Mr. Shih can replicate in Saudi Arabia his experience in Singapore, where he was able to transform the National University into one of the world’s top 50 universities by building global networks for the university and links between academe and industry. His support for commercially lucrative research and his work with the Singaporean government on economic development will be helpful in accomplishing one of the new university’s stated goals of helping to diversify the Saudi economy away from dependence on oil revenue, as well as creating new jobs for the 30 percent of Saudi young people who are currently unemployed.

The university also hopes that Mr. Shih’s personal connections in both North America and Asia will help connect the university, and the country, with these two global hubs for science and technology. At the National University of Singapore, Mr. Shih focused on building 10 core programs, rather than all fields — a strategy that is in line with Kaust’s goal of focusing on four primary research areas to drive the university. —Zvika Krieger