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The vast golden deserts of the Middle East feature some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. Life in this environment has long carried a unique set of trials, but in recent years those challenges – water conservation, climate change, fossil fuels and sustainability – have become the world’s trials as well.
For Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), these fields represent something more – an opportunity to share knowledge. Established in 2009, KAUST uses its unique perspective as a think tank for scientific and technological education and research to improve humanity’s understanding of those areas.
According to university President Tony Chan, its mission to serve the people of the kingdom and the world has come a long way in a short space of time.
“What was formulated 15 years ago remains true today, and in our first decade, I think we have achieved a lot,” he says. “Now, we’re redoubling our efforts, investing more, aiming higher. We’re small – we only have about 200 professors – but we have more than 100 nationalities living on our campus.”
While KAUST has broadened its horizons during its first decade, a research focus on its four core topics has expanded to five pillars: energy; the environment; water; food and health; and the digital domain.
“We started with four. First energy, which goes without saying. Saudi Arabia is still the biggest exporter of oil but it is also investing heavily in renewable energy,” Chan explains.
“Second, the environment, which here in the desert is very harsh. Third is water. Most of the drinkable water in the kingdom is from desalination, but it’s an expensive process and requires a lot of energy.”
Food is the fourth, which in the Arabian Desert isn’t exactly plentiful. “You need energy and water to grow food in a desert environment,” he points out.
KAUST’s desert agriculture research aims to grow drought-hardy plants and soils with efficient water usage and monitoring.
“These topics are globally relevant, and our strategy is to take advantage of the special situation in Saudi Arabia to attract scholars from all over. You can’t study the Red Sea and the Arabian desert environments from America.”
Part of Chan’s remit when he stepped into the role of President in 2018 was to expand KAUST’s academic focus.
“The world has changed,” he notes. “Cybersecurity and robotics are becoming more important to Saudi Arabia, so I introduced a fifth digital pillar and a new artificial intelligence initiative. As a university of science and technology, we have to be invested in the digital realm.”
“As a university of science and technology, we have to be invested in the digital realm.”
Another area he added was health, despite KAUST’s lack of a medical campus.
“We have so many chemists, biologists and engineers that produce work relevant to health,” he reveals. “In fact, we’ve blended the two new fields into our Smart Health initiative, which combines digital technology with life science.”
While the program began before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chan says the crisis has made KAUST’s work in the field even more relevant.
“Not so long ago, the Middle East suffered the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS),” he recalls. “It was much more lethal than COVID-19, but somehow it died off. We don’t know why.”
KAUST’s latest research seeks to learn lessons from the MERS situation that can be applied to the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 crisis.
“Our faculty is looking at developing faster, cheaper and more effective COVID-19 tests, for example,” he says. “We’re also starting Saudi Arabia’s first MD PhD program.”
Beyond human health, KAUST’s aquatic proximity has made the university an authority on the health of the world’s oceans.
“Our study of the Red Sea is an area of strength for us,” Chan stresses. “It was announced at the most recent G20 meeting that KAUST will be the headquarters of G20’s efforts to preserve and restore coral reefs, so we have Australians and Americans participating in our work here.”
Similarly, its work in the field of climate and livability draws on the severe Saudi environment.
“Saudi Arabia is particularly worried about climate change,” he confirms. “If you look at a map, right now there’s not a lot of the country that’s inhabitable. And if the global temperature rises another degree, it will wipe out a huge area of livable space in the kingdom.”
“Oil is going to run out one day, and one of Vision 2030’s goals is to diversify the economy, and to do that you must invest in people, in education.”
The needs of humanity, should such a situation come to pass – energy, greenery, fresh water – are the focus of KAUST’s research in the climate arena. It’s work Chan hopes will also mitigate another of Saudi Arabia’s slow-burning issues: the depletion of its oil supplies.
“Hopefully, our laboratories will generate technology that can be commercialized,” he reflects. “Oil is going to run out one day, and one of Vision 2030’s goals is to diversify the economy, and to do that you must invest in people, in education.”
With Saudi Arabia on the precipice of change in response to a changing world, Chan believes KAUST can be the agent of that transformation. “We aren’t just debris to be swept up in the storm, we are the winds of change,” he says.
It was this opportunity, to bring about real change in a unique part of the world, that brought Chan to KAUST in the first place. A computer science graduate and President of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for nine years, he started off on the KAUST board before taking on the role of President.
“I’m in a very privileged position,” he says. “We have over a billion dollars’ worth of equipment. We’re funded by a very generous endowment, but I still have to convince the board and use those resources in a strategic way – that is, to continue to provide a unique and unbeatable research environment for our faculty and students.”
While he admits his ambitions are lofty, Chan believes the effort is worth it. Not just for himself, KAUST or even Saudi Arabia, but for the world.
“It’s an uphill battle, but it’s a worthy cause. If I’m successful, it would be a big part of my legacy. I relish the challenge.”