About two years from now, Engineering Prof. Fawwaz Ulaby will be living off the coast of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, serving as the founding provost of what’s expected to become a high-powered new science and technology research university.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, named in honor of the Saudi Arabia’s reigning monarch, will open its doors to a small group of intellectual elites in September 2009. KAUST will host no more than 2,000 students – every one of them exempt from tuition fees thanks to fellowships funded by the university’s multi-billion dollar endowment, much of which comes from oil industry profits.

In Saudi Arabia, Ulaby will be responsible for hiring faculty and overseeing student and academic affairs. Ulaby said all classes at KAUST will be taught in English to accommodate international students and professors.

A Lebanon native, Ulaby said he would continue teaching electrical engineering and computer science courses at the University of Michigan until he begins his appointed post at KAUST, and will complete research collaborations with colleagues. Ulaby, whose career at the University began in 1984, recently completed a seven-year term as the University’s vice president of research.

In an introductory letter posted on the school’s website, Ulaby said KAUST’s research will benefit the scientific community while boosting the local economy at the same time. The letter cited solar energy and wheat genetically engineered to grow in saltwater as two areas of research that will benefit the area surrounding Saudi Arabia, much of which is desert. Ulaby said these studies are expensive to fund but have great potential to improve global living standards.

According to the KAUST website, the university will recruit top students and faculty from across the world using an endowment Ulaby estimates to be several times that of the University of Michigan. King Abdullah himself sponsored much of the endowment.

“It has the resources to give the best researchers from around the world everything they need to do their best work,” said Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi in a video on KAUST’s website. “From its inception, KAUST will have one of the largest university endowments in the world.”

If its prestige isn’t enough to attract the best, the university campus also includes a nine-hole golf course, a yacht club, a shopping center, and various schools and day-care centers all in close proximity to a beach on the Red Sea.

The university will also collaborate with some of the world’s top schools.

“Right now KAUST has joint programs like this with Berkley and Stanford in this country and with Cambridge and St. Peter’s College in England, and I hope that we will be able to develop something like that with U of M in the future,” Ulaby said.

Ulaby said he would keep his options open at the University of Michigan, officially taking only a leave of absence.

“The University is home to me, and the best friendships I have made in my life came out of U of M,” Ulaby said.

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