Bookmark and Share

By **Rafia Zakaria**

When the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was inaugurated late last year, it was heralded by the world as the first step towards a new era of intellectual inquiry in Saudi Arabia.

Washington Post, quoting King Abdullah, described the new university as a “beacon of tolerance” on the banks of the Red Sea and reported many of its features.

The initial controversy that surrounded the inauguration of the university focused on its policy of allowing women to study alongside men without wearing a face covering and even drive on campus. Nasser Al Shithri, a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Scholars in Saudi Arabia, condemned the university, saying it was “mixing a great sin and a great evil” and “when men mix with women their hearts will burn and this will divert them from their main goal—education.”

His comments, published in the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, led to a royal decree removing Shithri from his post. The king also issued a statement that “faith and science cannot compete except in unhealthy souls” and “science is the first line of defense against extremists.” These were indeed heartening words, and resounded with hope both within Saudi Arabia and in other parts of the Muslim world.

Yet, while Saudi women may have won a coveted measure of freedom to pursue their academic goals on the KAUST campus, a recent controversy illustrates that not all disenfranchised factions of Saudi society may have been so fortunate. A blog post by an American student studying at KAUST reveals how the bigotry and discrimination faced by migrant workers in the rest of Saudi Arabia is present at the university too. The reported incident was confirmed by sources who wished to remain anonymous. However, the KAUST administration has not confirmed or denied the incident.

According to the post, KAUST students and staff had weekly basketball games on the university grounds, which allowed campus workers, brought in on buses from Thuwal or Jeddah, to get some physical activity not specifically meant for the students. During spring break this year, while there were no students on campus, the workers showed up to play the game. The blogger writes that when the university administration heard that the workers had used the university’s sports and recreation facilities without the students being present, it was furious.

The discrimination seen at KAUST suggests at best only a superficial commitment to intellectual inquiry and at worst a campaign to restrict learning to those who can afford it.

Most of the workers were Filipinos or Bangladeshis and there was talk of firing and deporting all of them after docking their pay. However, because a single Lebanese was amongst them, and because Arabs, unlike South Asians, cannot be deported summarily, this did not happen. Eventually, the workers were suspended for three to five days without pay and a ban was imposed on any worker ever using the university’s sports or recreation facilities. The workers, one student was apparently told, “are dangerous people” who “will lie, cheat and steal at the slightest opportunity” and hence must be kept away from the facilities.

KAUST employs some 4,000 migrant workers for its 1,000 students. Like migrant workers across Saudi Arabia they wait on the students, washing their dirty clothes, cleaning their toilets, cooking their food, sweeping their floors and making sure the marble floors continue to gleam. KAUST may have made headway by shaking up the clerical hierarchy and providing a modicum of gender parity, but there is little reflection on the situation of those hapless souls who have been hired to serve the higher minds that will supposedly usher Saudi Arabia into the age of innovation. While in the words of King Abdullah, science and faith cannot mix, it also seems that intellectual exploration cannot enter the realm of outmoded and blatantly discriminatory systems that exploit the poor and powerless.

Moreover, the juxtaposition of women’s rights and those of migrant workers at the university reveals a complex phenomenon emerging in the Middle East. Countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, beset with demographic insecurity in the face of increasing numbers of migrant workers, see the extension of citizenship rights and educational opportunities to native-born women as a convenient way out of the problem of acknowledging the equality of migrant workers.

Kuwait’s extension of the vote to women in 2006 was one exercise in this effort to bolster the dwindling ranks of native-born citizens against the constant incursion of migrants, who make up nearly 80 percent of the Kuwaiti labor force. The KAUST campus similarly appears a phenomenon where Saudi women’s intellectual capital is being harnessed in the hope of ensuring a better future for a post-oil Saudi Arabia—but not out of a true reconsideration of the ignominy of discrimination based on gender, nationality or race. Despite all of Saudi Arabia’s seemingly liberal advances, the discrimination seen at KAUST suggests at best only a superficial commitment to intellectual inquiry and at worst a campaign to restrict learning to those who can afford it.

The issue of the abuse of migrant labor in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is not new. A report by Human Rights Watch released last week decried the pitiable condition of female migrant workers who are routinely raped, beaten and abused by employers. A migrant rights monitoring website reported that every two days a migrant worker in Kuwait either attempts to or is successful in committing suicide. These reports, which rarely merit more than a line or two in Gulf newspapers, include cases of maids jumping from the balconies of high-rises, laborers hanging themselves in crowded camps and others taking pills or even drinking paint to escape their thankless lives.

Around the world, university campuses are supposed to foster inquiry, not simply about super computers and fast cars but also about the nature of humanity and the brute inequity of discrimination. At KAUST, in spite of its sleek research labs designed to foster progress, this message seems to have been lost.

Copyright © 2010 Dawn Media Group


Rafia Zakaria is a U.S.-based attorney and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.

This article is reprinted with permission of the author. It originally appeared at

To read more blog entries from Rafia Zakaria others at GUERNICA click HERE .


At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 13 years producing uncompromising journalism. 

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *