As in other Saudi universities, the 2,700 students at Saudi Arabia's prestigious University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran are facing challenges their forefathers never dreamed existed. In an underpopulated country facing serious labor shortages, they personify an investment that in terms of the future may be more important than even the kingdom's vast oil wealth. More than that, however, these young men - sons of coastal pearl divers, nomadic shepherds, urban merchants and religious scholars -embody the past and future of a nation determined to have both without destroying either. In one tumultuous decade, hundreds of UPM graduates have emerged with degrees in such fields as petrochemical research, metallurgy, data processing and industrial management. Yet they have held fast to the central traditions loyally maintained and proudly passed on by their fathers and forefathers.
What most impresses visitors to UPM - an architectural gem - is the strength of the ties that link past and present, foster both continuity and change and instill a kind of dynamic traditionalism in its student body. These young men are truly their fathers' sons. At the same time, however, they reflect their country's determined effort to exchange its God-given oil wealth for nothing less than economic self-sufficiency in the future.
Founded as a small technical college only 15 years ago, UPM today unquestionably ranks among the most striking campuses anywhere. Exemplifying both past and present Arabia, its architecture features a graceful Islamic colonnade, with low closed masses dominated by one traditional vertical line: a striking water tower that is not only handsome but functional; it serves as a reservoir for water and sometimes serves as a navigational landmark for coastal shipping. Growing out the hills of the Dammam Dome and blending with the tones of the earth, UPM is a campus that simultaneously suggests poetry and utility.
The Islamic theme of UPM is neither accidental nor incidental. It reflects a deep commitment to Islam that is at once historical and modern and shapes campus life in forms new and often puzzling to Western visitors. Such people, accustomed to the wide-open lifestyle of American and European campuses, soon notice that there are no dances, no co-ed parties and no demonstrations.
This is partly because some of those activities conflict with the precepts of Islam, but there are other reasons too. As put by one UPM official, "It is not just that Islam forbids ... frivolous things. We are also concerned about students using their time constructively.
They are indeed. At UPM the daily schedule of an orientation-year student is more like a Spartan training camp than an Ivy League exposure to learning. Some candidates for the B.S degree, for instance, must complete five years - rather than the usual four - of undergraduate study, and until 1973 certain engineering degrees required six years. For first-year students, this meant seven class hours daily - compared to three or four in most American colleges - plus laboratory work and copious homework assignments.
Behind this demanding schedule is UPM's pragmatic mandate: to participate in providing the essential instruction, research and technology needed by the kingdom if it is, one day, to manage its industries and at the same time gradually diversify the kingdom's oil-dependent economy. Furthermore, the kingdom's universities are young and UPM is determined that the competitive requirements of the professions, be the pacesetter.
It is, clearly, a demanding regimen. Yet, most students persevere. Encouraged by generous aid - the free tuition, housing, books, meal subsidiesand monthly stipend available to all Saudi university students at home and abroad - UPM students consider it a privilege to study at an institution that is sometimes called "the MIT of the Middle East." Significantly, the dropout rate for the orientation year - despite its grueling academic pace - is less than 20 per cent and even lower for the remaining four years.
Since the early 1960's, when the institution was an understaffed college with, barely enough funds to prepare candidates for study abroad, UPM has grown into a full-fledged university of international stature. Academic expansion, moreover, has kept pace with physical growth. The three colleges - Engineering Science, Science, and Industrial Management - send an impressive number of graduates annually to America's top universities for postgraduate study. (See Aramco World , May-June 1979) And, since 1973, the university has offered regular graduate courses in selected fields leading to master's degrees-but only when the governing board felt the colleges were able to meet international standards at this level.
To Rector Bakr Abdullah Bakr, the head of UPM, the university also has another role: as a clearinghouse between the predominantly Western technologies that Saudi Arabia needs and the wholly Eastern student body which must master and use them. "The Arab world is not underdeveloped," he insists, "save in its latent technological advances; the Islamic-Arabic contribution to civilization is well known. Nevertheless, the West has developed more sophisticated methods of production and distribution of goods and services for humanity's betterment. Our basic task at UPM is to acquire these new technologies within the context of our own value systems."
In this Bakr typifies the experiences of thousands of other American-educated Saudis who have returned to the kingdom in the last decade - men and women who realize that translating the manuals is only the first stage and not necessarily the most important. As the rector puts it, "Some countries have sacrificed the soul of their culture in order to acquire the tools of Western technology. We want the tools but not at the price of annihilating our religion and cultural values.
"Our basic problem here at UPM," he continues, "is to utilize - to electrify - that fine line separating tradition and progress. Even recognizing their relative merits is difficult. Physical laws such as gravity are stable and predictable, but those of the social sciences are more nebulous. This is the area of Western culture that we must evaluate very carefully against our traditional values if we are to preserve anything of the latter." Bakr believes it is impossible to quantify a culture. He feels that the ideals which many Western intellectuals have elevated to the status of universal truths are really only cultural predilections. "We will not slavishly copy what we feel are non-universals just because other developing nations have done so," he adds. "Adjustments are needed. I feel that the possible rejection of our Islamic value system poses the most serious development problem in the Arab world today."
Despite his caution, Dr. Bakr's philosophy, and that of others in the Saudi educational establishment, is hardly xenophobic. Despite the reverence all Arabs feel for their language, for example, they recognize that the international language of business and technology today is English, and feel it necessary, at this time, to demand a fluency in that language. In this respect, the university is unique in the kingdom; it has made English the language of instruction. For the students, this language requirement is probably the toughest hurdle they face in their five years at UPM. "Just imagine an American student with little formal knowledge of Oriental languages trying to cram, in one year, enough Chinese to enter a chemical engineering program at the University of Hong Kong," says Columbia University's Hubbard Goodrich, a former director of UPM's English Language Center. Apart from the cultural shock, he adds, the sheer workload of that orientation year is a back-breaker. UPM has introduced other innovations too. Its student-faculty composition, for example, is as international as any campus in the world. Its faculty is drawn from 22 countries and its student body, this year, represents 35 countries - an example of the university's decision, as one instructor put it, "to evaluate our performance by international, not regional, standards."
UPM's first task, then, is the education of students in the technologies of the 20th century, and its curriculum suggests what kind of education that is: B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees for studies in chemistry, earth sciences, mathematical sciences and physics in the College of Sciences; for studies in architectural, civil, chemical, electrical, mechanical, petroleum and systems engineering in the College of Engineering Science; and for studies in applied, civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical options.
Because the university believes that the standard of instruction for first - and second-year candidates is vital, the administration demands "vertical teaching" - that is, even professors of the highest rank must teach courses in the lower divisions as well as handle graduate seminars and conduct their own research. With its low 12-to-l student-teacher ratio and its deliberate tutorial bias, the emphasis at UPM is clearly on quality.
In the long run, of course, research at UPM will, eventually, be as important as it is, and must be, at other top universities. Already, in fact, UPM is involved in ongoing research programs into oil reservoir stimulation, the geochemistry of sabkhas (salt flats) and the potential pollution in the Arabian Gulf, and there is little doubt that UPM is to become a key "think tank" for the kingdom's petroleum and minerals industries. To those who still think of Saudi Arabia in the now-outdated terms of dune and Bedouin, the idea of a Saudi university sponsoring original research in high-technology fields may sound ambitious and premature. In fact, though, UPM's commanding location - atop the Dammam geologic dome where the kingdom's first oil was discovered in 1938 - is strategic as well as symbolic. Situated within a 500-mile swath lies a quarter of the world's petroleum reserves - and UPM plans to take full advantage of that fact. Already, for example, the university has launched construction of a new $100-million research institute building and, simultaneously, announced a research project that its backers believe is novel, bold and particularly well adapted to Saudi Arabia's needs and advantages.
As part of the kingdom's massive Five Year Development Plan (See Aramco World, January-February 1977), Aramco has undertaken a huge gas-gathering project which will capture and process vast quantities of the gas that must be separated from crude oil prior to processing it. In treating the gas, Aramco produces considerable amounts of sulfcir, which cannot always be absorbed by the world's chemical industry. At UPM's Research Institute, therefore, scientists have begun to explore the possibility of using the anticipated tonnage of excess sulfur - to build roads. In one sense this project is peripheral to the oil industry's primary objective: the extraction, shipment, processing and distribution of petroleum and petroleum products. But in today's intricate and interdependent technologies such distinctions have little validity. If the "sulfur road" experiment proves successful, UPM scientists might not only find a market for the excess sulfur but also provide road surfaces better adapted to Saudi Arabia's climate and reduce road building costs by eliminating the need for expensive asphalt.
What UPM is looking for specifically is a sulfur-based aggregate that would be more economical - an important factor given the massive road construction program called for by the five-year plan - and stronger than present road-surfacing materials. The new aggregate, it is hoped, will stand up better to the Saudi climate - in which temperatures can vary substantially - and thus provide a new product for export to other arid lands. So far the new "sulfur aggregate" is strictly experimental, but UPM is already planning a test: on a stretch of highway where construction traffic is heaviest. From dawn till dusk the highway will support a thundering fleet of trucks carrying full loads while electronic monitors measure the surface's durability. UPM researchers are also trying to design a computer-controlled public water system for the municipality of Riyadh and the Ministry of Agriculture. Because of the tremendous physical expansion of the city, the demands for water have exceeded the capacity to provide it and UPM researchers hope to perfect a system by which computers would constantly monitor the city's water flow - in much the same way that Aramco's Tapline regulated its flow of oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon-and, researchers say, automatically increase, stop, divert or redirect water during emergencies.
Both those projects, obviously, are tied to local needs and promise tangible returns to both government and industry - and it's no accident. Despite its hefty annual budget-nearly $180 million - UPM is as cost-conscious as a county school board and insists that all research be geared to the practical needs of the local communities. Furthermore, says the Research Institute's head, U.S.- educated Abdullah E. Dab-bagh, until the center reaches its full staff capacity of 350 researchers in 1984, it will continue to give priority to such practical, rather than pure, research ventures. It is true, he says frankly, that the U.S. has proven the economic value of massive research and development programs and that Saudi Arabia still spends too little of its oil wealth on pure research. But Saudi Arabia, he adds, is still building an infrastructure, practically from scratch, and must, therefore, direct its energies - and its energy revenues - toward projects promising fast results. Some studies, fortunately, straddle the boundaries of both pure and practical research. One such project - which Dab-bagh considers a linchpin of future development in the kingdom - is the Institute's Sand Research Program. As the Rub' al-Khali - the Empty Quarter - is the largest sand desert in the world, it is easy to see why sand, pure and simple, would fascinate researchers. But there is a sound practical reason too, says Dabbagh. "We must pursue this question because our government is spending billions in planning new cities. A showcase community could be buried in a lifetime if these ever-shifting sand patterns are not fully understood."
Thus UPM scientists, working closely with Dr. Edwin McKee of the U.S. Geological Survey, are hard at work trying to unravel the ancient mysteries of Saudi sand's structures, its accumulation, its rate of movement and the role of wind direction in its movement. Progress has been slow, but already McKee has found that the "layering" of sand indicates the directions the wind has been blowing throughout history. The exact nature and scope of this interaction has yet to be determined, but the personal interest of Dr. Dabbagh and other Saudi scientists promises intensive future research into what he terms'Arabia's elusive sand regime" - and conceivably a more effective solution to the slow envelopment that once threatened the very existence of the al-Hasa Oasis. (See Aramco World, May-June 1965)
Another field under enthusiastic study at UPM is, interestingly, solar energy - a reflection of what is surely one of the most foresighted national policies in the history of energy development: Saudi Arabia's insistence on exploring alternate sources of energy long before its own immense reserves of oil are depleted. As with its sand study, UPM's solar energy research encompasses pure and practical elements. As Dabbagh put it, "Our oil won't last forever, and solar research may well prove a paying proposition in diversifying the kingdom's petroleum-based economy!" By funding solar energy experiments in the United States - such as a solar-heated school in Reston, Virginia - Saudi Arabia, several years ago, showed that its interest in solar energy was more than astute public relations. But UPM has done even more. In 1978, in the neighboring island state of Bahrain, UPM sponsored an important international conference on solar energy, the second such conference recently backed by the kingdom. At the conference Saudi Arab scientists pointed out why Saudi Arabia, despite its reserves of oil, is also the ideal place to experiment with solar energy - and why UPM research is therefore a quite practical undertaking. The Arabian Peninsula alone, they said, receives more solar energy in a year than the energy contained in all the oil, gas and coal still buried in the earth. Trapping and storing that energy efficiently, therefore, is the focus of solar research today and UPM's energy experts are doing their part in testing various solar collectors to determine which performs best in Saudi Arabia's unique climate. "We're still a long way from building a major demonstration system here," admits Dabbagh, "but it's our job as scientists to give a strong impetus to Saudi industries, which must become competitive."
The solar energy conference, however, was only one of the international conferences sponsored by UPM in recent years. Last year, for example, UPM played host to conferences on computers and - of particular interest in the kingdom - housing. Held on the UPM campus, the week-long seminar on housing appeared in international headlines, fired the imaginations of Saudi and foreign visitor alike, produced bold new building designs and, indirectly, provided a clear example of the University's attempt to foster continuity amid change.
Brian McCloskey, for example, a Canadian architect and chairman of the architecture department, showed designs made by him with Saudi architectural students which successfully combined the beauty and spaciousness of the old, latticed mashrabiya home with modern ventilation methods using local materials. "There is no reason", he said,"why traditional esthetics, efficiency or economy need be sacrificed in Saudi homes to accommodate Western technology. Both can be had at a reasonable cost!"
This theme - the advantages of traditional methods and local materials - surfaced more than once during the conference. Imported, pre-fabricated buildings, for example, were acknowledged to be essential given the critical housing needs of the current boom, but were criticized nonetheless as being unrelated to regional demands and McCloskey proposed that an inexpensive quartz by-product readily available in Saudi Arabia be used as a replacement for both the traditional mud bricks and imported pre-fab housing units. McCloskey and the Saudi architectural contingent also advanced innovative models synthesizing modern building technologies with indigenous architecture. When perfected, it was suggested, designs could make Saudi Arabia a Third World pioneer in this approach. Those models reflect what many observers have long known and what Saudi architects firmly believe: that traditional Arabian Gulf architecture is often more suitable to the region than imported ideas. Ottoman-era homes in Hofuf and Qatif, they argue, are generally better architectural prototypes for this area than Western models. For instance, the mashrabiya (See Aramco World, July-August, 1974), the historic window lattice, does much more than allow the occupants to gaze out unseen. It allows for maximum circulation of cool or warm air, filters both dust and glare and is esthetically attractive. Similarly, in such places as Dubai, Sharjah and Iran, ancient architects developed the wind tower, a vertical, rooftop shaft ingeniously designed to catch the wind and channel it into the rooms below. It was by no means as cool as air conditioning but it required no energy either. (See Aramco World, September-October, 1972.)
To encourage innovative thinking, McCloskey says, he has been urging his 125 architectural engineering students "to develop their critical attitudes towards what is being built here, for whom, and at what socio-economic price. When they discover that they are able to design a home that preserves the traditional Arab style yet uses advanced technology, they are ecstatic."
UPM, then, is a striking example of Saudi Arabia's commitment to education. But it is not a solitary example; in Saudi Arabia the progress in education has been meteoric by any standards. As recently as 25 years ago there was no official school system and no university in the kingdom. Today some 700,000 children are enrolled in secondary schools, and six modern universities and numerous specialized colleges are well funded by the Government.
In addition, an estimated 20,000 students are now abroad for advanced training -15,000 of them in the United States at one point (See Aramco World, May-June 1979) -almost all of whom plan to return and take up posts in a society facing rapid change.
UPM, however, is a showcase - a unique blend of Western know-how and Islamic traditionalism. Although the university houses one of the country's most sophisticated computer centers - the current symbol of advanced technology - UPM students are still manifestly their fathers' sons. Perhaps no scene more poignantly expresses this continuity linking past and present Arabia than the afternoon prayer call. In groups of tens - or hundreds - they openly profess their faith in a common Creator in a manner rarely seen in Western youth today.
In the West, such a scene might suggest a dreary Dickens schoolhouse: unremitting drudgery and stern piety. But nothing could be further from the truth: while there are no dances and no drinking, and while the academic schedule is hard, there are numerous activities: sports, films, poetry readings, folkloric activities and - that Arab staple - lively conversation. UPM's recreational facilities, furthermore, are rarely matched in the Gulf: an Olympic-size swimming pool, a 40,000-square-foot gymnasium, tennis and squash courts and numerous synthetic-surfaced playing fields. In addition, a 10,000-seat stadium will be completed this year.
More than its mere physical expansion, however, UPM embodies the dynamism of contrasts that mark civilized thought everywhere: a dynamic religion that exists harmoniously within an innovative scientific community, and students who stubbornly work to make technology the handmaiden rather than the master of tradition.
Barry Reynolds, who spent two years in Saudi Arabia teaching at UPM and free-lancing for several publications, has returned to his job as an instructor at John Abbot College in Montreal.