Lecturing in Saudi provided insights in Arabic sustainable energy research – University of Copenhagen

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20 July 2010

Lecturing in Saudi provided insights in Arabic sustainable energy research

By Jes Andersen

Say Saudi Arabia and almost anyone will think of oil and ancient traditions. But something is about to change. In just two years one of the largest technical universities in the world has risen from the desert sands. And one of the most important subjects for the institution to tackle seems to be sustainable energy.

Universitetet set fra den nyopførte lystbådehavn

Ultrafast chemist in traditional country

For ten days one of the Department of Chemistry researchers got a firsthand impression of the impressive Arabic research campus. A researcher in the field of ultrafast chemical processes Theis Sølling was invited to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to lecture on femtochemistry: A field where chemists struggle to film what happens as chemical reactions take place. The visit gave him surprising insights into a country which is only slowly opening its borders to western foreigners. Theis Sølling, Kemisk Institut, Københavns Universitet 

In due course the University is planning to graduate some 400 Masters and PhDs. Staff and students hail from some 70 nations and one of the stated goals of the campus is for Saudis to meet the many foreigners, explains Theis Sølling.

"At the campus there is access to many things western. But the Saudis will face well educated westerners", tells Sølling, who feels that King Abdullah has secured a good cultural meeting ground in this way.

Surprises in foreign culture 

Cross cultural meetings were also on the menu for Sølling himself. He and his family are well travelled and have visited several unusual destinations. He had brought his wife and two children to KAUST. And that helped him lose many of his prejudices. He has returned to Denmark with a radically different view of Saudi culture and not least their view on women.

"We are so used to condemning the Saudi Arabians when we hear things like: Their women are not allowed to drive. But we experienced an enormous respect for women wherever we touched down," Tells Sølling and continues with a wry smile: "I'm not too sure I'd want my wife to drive in the chaos that is rush-hour driving in Jeddah either".
King Abdullah University: Kunst på Campus

Five star university

Arriving at the Saudi university is somewhat like coming to a five star hotel. At the airport in Jeddah researchers are met by a check-in counter. The trip from the airport is luxurious and at the campus the entire family were lodged in a five room apartment with bathrooms en suite for both bedrooms.

Petrodollars for sustainable research

Accommodations as well as faculty buildings are all in the best materials and the entire project has cost no less than 11 billion dollars. In order to ensure, that the university can still function regardless of any political situation facing the country King Abdullah has tied up another 30 billion dollars in a foundation. All the money has been withdrawn from the national oil company Aramco. But even though petrodollars have funded the campus there is no doubt that research into sustainable energy is front and centre at the university. Explains Sølling.

"A litre of gasoline costs about eight eurocents, and I was pretty sure that all I'd see was research into oil-exploration and oil refining. But in actual fact I didn't see one single thing concerning oil," tells Theis and continues: "Quite the contrary. All over campus you see these signs reminding staff and students to save energy".

With an annuum significantly larger than in Denmark, with free quarters for professors and associate professors and with high and tax-free salaries, energy seems be the only thing that one would need to save in the oil rich and apparently no longer conventional country.

 Energispareskilt på Campus