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February 17, 2008

Your New Home in Saudi Arabia

Kaust How do you persuade 500 science majors from around the world to pursue graduate studies at a new university in a desert nation? Especially one where Sharia law prevails and women can't vote or drive?

Money, mostly--nearly $28 million this year in scholarships.

The school is the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), scheduled to open in 2009 on the west coast of Saudi Arabia. The recruiter is Matt Jones of the Institute of International Education in Washington, D.C., who's here advertising a program to get undergraduates in their junior and senior year to commit to KAUST.

This afternoon, Jones sat in a dark suit on soft stools in a colorful desert-themed booth at the meeting's convention hall, hoping to "get the word out" about his client. "I don't think selling anything is easy," he said. "But I really think KAUST is leaps and bounds above other graduate options out there."

In exchange for agreeing to spend two years at KAUST getting a research-heavy master's degree, students in the program will receive full undergraduate tuition, stipends for books, laptops, and living expenses, plus travel funds and brand new graduate housing (see picture). In recent weeks Jones's nonprofit has awarded 178 undergraduate scholarships; most are from the Middle East, he said, and about 25 are from the United States. Muslim students are showing special interest, Jones added, as are students interested in KAUST's emphasis on interdisciplinary research in energy, the environment, material science, and applied math.

Living on the enclosed 40-square-kilometer campus by the sea "is not for everybody," Jones acknowledged. "We're looking for students with an adventurous spirit." Meanwhile, Jones' colleague Alex Sterling, a thin, dark haired woman with a manicure, was pitching KAUST to a curly-haired fellow. "They've spared no expense," she said of the construction underway, mentioning efforts to "protect coral reefs" and highlighting KAUST's "fully coeducational campus."

As Sterling was talking, Harvard astrophysicist Alison Farmer picked up one of the free ergonomic pens, embossed with KAUST's multicolored insignia, that Jones had laid out on the low table. "I would be interested in going and checking it out," she said of the new school, noting that she had read about it online and that her current job hunt had been difficult. She admitted she was "kind of worried" about the unequal status of women in Saudi Arabia, but she liked "the idea of something new."

--Eli Kintisch