By Arab News
By Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
On Sept. 23, 1965, a group of 67 Saudi students became the nucleus of what would be the most influential educational institute in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This small educational institute used to be called the College of Petroleum and Minerals (CPM). It was established on a little hill named Jabal Al Dhahran (mountain). The size of the college is far away from being a real college, so was the mountain’s size which was far away from being a mountain. It was a small and shy step by Saudi Arabia to enter the field of technology. Saudi Arabia needed a school that will supply a giant company called Aramco with some Saudi engineers who could take part in operating the largest oil producing company in the world. The college was taking baby steps. It was under the supervision of two wings, one was the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals and the other wing was Aramco. It was the first time in the world where a college had a powerful government ministry and a giant company work together hand in hand to establish an educational institute. So, did this small college achieve what was expected from it? The answer is, it achieved far more than what was expected from an educational institute.
This school took young Saudis to the highest level of achievement in science and technology. This school changed its name 2 times. In 1975, it was renamed University of Petroleum and Minerals (UPM). And in 1986, it was renamed King Fhad University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM). The Deans were Dr. Saleh Amba, Dr. Baker Abdullah, Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Dukhayyil and the present one is Dr. Khalid Al-Sultan. I never attended this school, even though I took the college aptitude test in the summer of 1974. However, I ended up attending a school in the US in a scholarship provided by the Royal Saudi Navy. My path crossed with KFUPM on several occasions, even more so than some of the students who graduated from it. During my long stay in the US, which was 9 years of schooling and 4 more years as a naval liaison officer, I gave tens of lectures about Saudi Arabia. And in all of these lectures I spoke about Aramco and KFUPM. It was the only college in the Eastern Province at the time and it was to me part of Aramco. And the more I gave lectures about this Petroleum College, the more I knew about how much this school influenced Saudi society. It had a bigger impact than what most graduates and faculty realized. And maybe they didn’t see it because they were in the middle of it. But, I was looking from the outside and knew what effect this school had.
During one of my lectures in one of the largest US Navy bases, which were located in Norfolk, Virginia in 1982, I was surprised that my talk about KFUPM attracted more attention than what I had expected. And my memory went back to 1974, to the night I went to KFUPM (CPM at that time) to say goodbye to my high school classmates who joined the College of Petroleum. I saw students from all over the Kingdom. The college provided them with free accommodation, subsidized meals at a very modern cafeteria and everything a student needs. And this was a first in the Kingdom. The students lived in dormitory-like rooms and it was a Saudi melting pot at its best. The students and their instructors were like friends. Students were from all segments of the society and from all corners of Saudi Arabia. And when I searched for more information about this school when I was in the US to write a research paper for a Virginia community college, I came across some names of the lecturers and staff who were from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and some of them were top scientists from America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). And there were even top scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. As I recall, his name was William Pickering. Interestingly, the JPL in Pasadena is also like the College of Petroleum and Minerals, in that JPL is also under the supervision of two wings; NASA and Caltech. And from then on, I always refer to KFUPM as the MIT of the Middle East.
To this day, it is easy to recognize a KFUPM student from others attending different universities in the Kingdom. KFUPM to Saudi education is like Pan American Airways for America’s aviation. Pan Am had more influence than what a lot of people know. Pan Am simply took the world aviation to different levels. The same is for KFUPM, it had an influence on Saudi Arabia that most people didn’t know. It supplied Saudi job market with the most skilled engineers. And during the historic takeover of Aramco by the Saudi Government, it was KFUPM who made the transition easy with the talented graduates of KFUPM to work for Saudi Aramco.
Khalid Al-Falih is a KFUPM graduate. And let us not forget, it was KFUPM which brought computer science, petroleum engineering and the credit hours educational system to the Kingdom. KFUPM even added a flavor to graduation ceremonies for Saudi students. KFUPM became a homemade party.
We saw the mothers of the students at the stadium for the graduation ceremony. And each proud mother pointed at her son and said, “this is my son, I raised this successful young man”. And yes, almost every KFUPM graduate is a successful young man. And if my memory serves me correctly, NASA’s Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory director is Dr. Charles Elachi, who was a former member of the international advisory board for KFUPM. This university went from a Petroleum College on a little hill in Dhahran with 67 students only, to a school to be connected to the most advanced research laboratory in the world. KFUPM initiated the establishment of Dhahran Techno-Valley, which is a miniature California Silicon Valley. And I still remember the summer of 1985, when Prince Sultan Bin Salman was in Houston and then Cape Canaveral as a member of NASA’s shuttle, Discovery.
Now, Saudi Arabia has an astronaut and KFUPM was present. I have learned from Hassan Al-Jaser, the current secretary of the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz, that it was a team of 20 people from KFUPM who arranged for some of the scientific experiments which were done aboard the shuttle. They worked long hours in Houston and Cape Canaveral and KFUPM went from a little hill called Jabl Al Dhahran to Pasadena NASA’s JPL and ended up at the launch pad of one of the most scientifically and technologically advanced machines; the Space Shuttle.