October 08, 2009
Can Islamic Law, supercomputers, and a co-ed university peacefully coexist? That's what Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) will soon find out. The new high-tech research center was inaugurated last month in a highly publicized ceremony in the Islamic kingdom.
KAUST, located on the Red Sea 50 miles north of Jeddah, encompasses an international university, a graduate research institution, and a supercomputing center. This is not just any research center. According our interview last year with Majid Al-Ghaslan, KAUST's interim chief information officer, a multi-billion dollar fund has been established by the government to keep the university extremely well-fed.
HPC-wise, KAUST will house "Shaheen," a 16-rack IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer that serves as the centerpiece for the institution's HPC capability. At 222 peak teraflops it is the most powerful computer in the Middle East and currently sits at number 14 on the TOP500 list. As such, KAUST is part of a larger government strategy to use Saudi Arabia's oil wealth to modernize the country and help create a knowledge-based economy.
Given the conservative nature of Saudi society, the co-ed nature of the university was bound to be the most controversial aspect. According to an LA Times report: The institution breaks a number of the Islamic kingdom’s social taboos, including allowing men and women to mix freely in classes and not forcing women to wear veils. In all other Saudi universities, women and men are taught separately and male professors lecture to female students via video link."
A couple weeks after the grand opening, senior Muslim cleric Sheikh Saad Al-Shethri publicly criticized the KAUST's policy of allowing men and women to attend classes together. Declared al-Shethri: "Mixing is a great sin and a great evil." Perhaps the cleric forgot who the institution was named after. Shortly after his comment became public, King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, "relieved" Al-Shethri of his duties on the government-backed Council of Religious Scholars. Remember, no separation of church and state here.
That skirmish may only be a prelude to a wider conflict between conservative Saudis and the government. The KAUST supercomputer will support scientific research in areas such as energy studies, environmental science, biosciences/bioengineering; nanotechnology, materials science/engineering, applied mathematics and computational science. Some of this will undoubtedly go to support the Saudi oil & gas industry, but other areas are aimed at more basic research that may end up at odds with Islamic teachings.
More importantly, KAUST is an international center, made up mostly of researchers and companies from non-Muslim nations -- the US, France, Germany, Singapore, China, to name just a few. Currently, only about 15 percent of the university's students are Saudi-born. And according to an AP report, 14 of the 71 faculty members are from the US. No doubt Saudi xenophobes aren't going to like this.
I've received a few comments from readers who are worried what Saudi Arabia might do with all this high-end HPC technology and research muscle being assembled at KAUST. I think that concern is misplaced. Right now the most liberalizing force in the kingdom is the Saudi monarchy, who seemed determined to bring the country into the 21st century and be a part of the world community. We should be cheering them on.
Posted by Michael Feldman - October 08, 2009 @ 4:46 PM, Pacific Daylight Time
Michael Feldman is the editor of HPCwire.
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