David L. Wheeler, February 8, 2011
Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg, Getty Images
Khalid A. al-Falih, president of Saudi Aramco: “There will be a drive to upgrade the quality of education, which means that many universities will try to establish themselves as research universities, so you will see more spending.”
Khalid A. Al-Falih leads Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, but he is arguably as interested in finding and developing the best college students as he is in locating light sweet crude. Last year the government-owned company paid for the education of 1,922 graduate and undergraduate Saudi students, including 1,138 in North America, 439 in Europe, and 217 in Saudi Arabia itself.
Saudi Aramco, which employs 55,000 people, also supports a College Preparatory Program that gives Saudi secondary-school graduates the skills they need to succeed in international universities. The company runs the equivalent of community colleges that give thousands of Saudi youth the technical skills they need for employment, and it has other extensive collaborations with Saudi and international higher-education institutions. In 2009, Saudi Aramco set up a “university relations” division to manage such partnerships.
Mr. Al-Falih, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University, has been president and chief executive officer of Saudi Aramco for two years, and he sits on the boards of two of Saudi Arabia’s leading universities, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM). The Chronicle interviewed him here at an Aramco residential compound and operations center on the Persian Gulf.
Q: What are some of the major changes and trends that you expect to see in Saudi education in the next five years?
A: There is going to be tremendous growth in capacity in terms of the numbers of seats offered, admissions, and graduates coming out. There is an intent to upgrade the quality. The limitation on upgrading is the faculty.
Many Saudi universities have been teaching in Arabic, and that includes both the sciences and humanities. That has been a limitation for graduates looking for jobs in the private sector. Most of the private sector does its business in English. I expect more and more universities to switch. That will have a dual effect. It will allow them to tap a bigger pool of faculty talent globally, because they will be hiring English-speaking faculty, and it will also make their graduates more readily [employable].
I expect there will be a drive to upgrade the quality of education, which means that many universities will try to establish themselves as research universities, so you will see more spending. Women’s education, which has been segregated with the exception of Kaust, will slowly start merging with the education of men in some areas. That will be a slow process, but I believe it is necessary, especially in advanced degrees.
Q: Are there any qualities that you think are missing in the graduates whom Saudi Aramco is employing?
A: One of the cultural aspects of Saudi Arabia and the region in general is to be more collaborative, less competitive. Which is fine, because we don’t want so much competitive tension in the company that it is excessive or destructive. But at the same time, you want to encourage an environment where people speak up and people compete and there is more openness about what others need to do.
So I would like to see us as a culture, and the universities and the corporations, to be more open about criticizing each other, letting each other know when things are not happening up to their potential and our expectations. … The universities have a role to advance these practices and these habits that are more healthy for a competitive workplace, where each organization needs to stay ahead of its competition.
Q: What is Saudi Aramco’s strategy and philosophy for working with universities?
A: We are a global company, and we operate in many countries around the world, increasingly in Asia. But our roots as a company go back to the days when we were a product of U.S. companies. So a lot of the corporate culture we trace to our American days. But our previous focus on tapping only American educational institutions is going to be increasingly broadened by tapping other sources of academic excellence and other sources of research. … We are creating alliances in Korea, Japan, and China. Invariably, every time I go and visit our customers and joint ventures in those countries, I always take time to visit one or two universities. …
I am a believer and the firm is a believer that just as important as marketing and attending to the needs of our customers is the fact that we need to tap talent. The most important inputs into our company are talent and technology, and universities are the prime source for those. We are creating alliances with these [Asian] universities and doing more collaborative research with them. We are also using our relationships with them to encourage them to come and tie up with Saudi universities, including KFUPM and Kaust, two universities we are strongly affiliated with.
Q: Why do you want more students from outside the kingdom to come and study in it?
A: I think it is very important for graduates to be comfortable working with people from different cultures. Sending Saudi students abroad for one semester or two semesters is great, but you can only send so many. Bringing a few people from outside can have an impact on the ones who don’t make it outside the kingdom. It bridges the gap temporarily. Ultimately the goal is for the students to go abroad to live, work, and study. If we can’t do that, then we bring some international students here and create a multicultural student environment. We have a population of seven million expatriates in a population of 28 million, so the ratio of non-Saudis to Saudis is probably higher than most nations our size. But working with them in teams in a classroom setting is not common. Once we introduce it, I am sure people will be exhilarated.
Q: What kind of economy do you see for the future of Saudi Arabia, and how do universities fit in with that?
A: I don’t believe you can just be a manufacturer of ideas and be a knowledge economy where you just make ideas and export ideas to be made into useful goods and services. Ultimately you have to give those ideas commercial value and to deliver them to consumers in your own country. For Saudi Arabia, I believe that knowledge is not just going to be happening in universities and research centers. It needs to revolve around viable economic activity that will leverage our competitive advantage.
To do that, you will need to build a strong research culture and industry within Saudi Arabia that will link academia to research within the companies that do this. And of course it will have to be enabled by a government that provides the right ecosystem—the regulations, incentives, rewards, recognition, and legal framework that protects intellectual property. That, then, will change the behavior of the young people. They will start favoring studies in science and technology and pursuing research that supports viable industries that reward and pay. The companies, in turn, will start funding research at universities and going after talent that is developed. The cycle starts feeding itself in a very positive way. But it has to start in a viable economic proposition.