There are a growing number of prominent universities in the world which are based in countries where the government exerts substantial control over its citizens in ways that are not typical in "Western" countries (Europe, US, Canada, etc.). Two examples:

  1. KAUST, in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is illegal and there are extremely strict dress codes.
  2. Tsinghua University, in China, where citizens are not typically allowed to protest or congregate, and in general citizens are not entitled to, for example, free speech.

For those who are/were faculty (or postdocs/researchers) at such institutions, and who were raised/trained in Western countries with less restrictive governments, what is life like at such a research institution? In particular:

  1. Are you bound by the restrictive laws the govern most citizens (for example, dress codes or alcohol in Saudi Arabia, or speech in China)? (Of course it's assumed that you can't just do whatever you like - I'm mostly interested in the laws that have nothing comparable in Western countries)

  2. Did you bring a family or significant other with you? What has their experience been like?

  3. Do you expect to stay at this institution for your career, or will you eventually try to return to your home country/a Western country?

Importantly, I am NOT passing judgement/being critical of the government of these countries. I am really just interested in how the institutions/governments of these countries treat researchers who are not citizens (and who, from my experience, have often been recruited from another western institution).

  • 2
    This really kind of too-broad too-specific question
    – seteropere
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 5:51
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    Really looking forward to answers to this one. From personal observation, media tends to associate a certain set of buzzwords associated with a country or a culture, this greatly misportraits how people are actually living. From my past research outside of the freedom of north america, the biggest challenge were mosquito bites and dangerous weather, government didn't even cross my mind.
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 6:08
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    I wouldn't be so sure about your examples, given the allegations about Canadian scientists requiring government approval about what they are going to say before speaking to media... bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16861468
    – Flyto
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 8:47
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    @IllegalImmigrant media tends to associate a certain set of buzzwords [...] with a country or a culture, this greatly misportraits how people are actually living How very true. I first realized how great it was to live in the US of A when I moved there, despite what European media say.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 14:50
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    @gerrit The OP is just defining a criterion. I think saying that disallowing free speech is a tight governmental control is simply stating a fact, not passing judgement. Saying whether that's a good or a bad thing is a judgement, however, and that is what is out of bounds.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 11:56

3 Answers 3


Disclaimer: What follows is a combination of openly-available facts and some personal opinions. The opinion parts are my own and I don't claim to speak for anyone else. I did not intend for this to be "the answer" to this question; it deals with only one country/university.

I was born and raised in the United States, and got all my degrees there. I have now been a professor at KAUST for 5 years. I certainly came here by choice; I had good competing offers at some top programs in my field in the US.

Are you bound by the restrictive laws that govern most citizens?

To a significant degree, yes. For instance, alcohol, pork, and a number of other substances are not permitted anywhere in Saudi Arabia. On-campus housing for single students is in separate buildings for men and for women.

However, KAUST is exempt from a number of the social customs that are in effect throughout the rest of the country. For example:

  • KAUST is the only university in the country where males and females learn in the same classroom together.
  • Women can drive on the KAUST campus (with a license).
  • Women do not need to wear the abaya (burkha) at KAUST, or to cover their hair, etc. They dress as they please, within professional standards of modesty.

KAUST is not completely unique in these respects; the Aramco "compound" (which is really a small city) in the Eastern Province has similar exceptions. The KAUST campus and the Aramco compound are also the only two places in the country with a movie theater.

Of course, we frequently leave the campus to go to Jeddah. My wife can't drive there and wears an abaya. Also, the university culture at KAUST is more top-down than at most US universities, which I believe is a reflection of the local culture. But our current president is changing that to some degree.

Did you bring a family or significant other with you? What has their experience been like?

I brought a wife and two young children (my third was born here). They are happy here -- if not, we wouldn't have stayed! Frankly, KAUST is an ideal place to raise a family. My children have friends from almost every imaginable culture, religion, and race. They take lessons in things like piano, swimming, and ballet. The schools are excellent and the community is extremely safe (I don't even lock my bike). I'll often bike to my childrens' school and take them to the park for lunch; everything is within five minutes by bicycle here. I live 1 block from the beach and my morning commute is a short bicycle ride through beautiful surroundings.

Life is pretty relaxed and hassle-free because the university essentially manages everything (and manages it well). My wife doesn't work outside the home. She participates in a number of community organizations and has time to devote to friendships, hobbies, and especially to our children.

I'll add (since most westerners find it surprising) that there are many single western women who work here very happily.

Do you expect to stay at this institution for your career, or will you eventually try to return to your home country/a western country?

I came to KAUST because it was an adventure and chance to build something new and worthwhile. My initial plan was to spend perhaps 3-4 years at KAUST and then go back to the US. However, I have since realized that I have the ideal academic job (by my own criteria, at least):

  • Extremely generous funding with no need to write grant proposals (KAUST has one of the world's largest endowments and only about 120 faculty).
  • Light teaching load (1 MS level course and 1 PhD level course per year), which also has allowed me the time to be bit innovative and try things like inquiry-based learning.
  • A relatively light administrative load, compared to what I hear from colleagues in the US. This is largely due to having excellent and plentiful support staff.
  • Long-term job security with the freedom to do research along any direction I wish (university positions generally include this, but other careers I considered do not).
  • Essentially unlimited access to a world-class supercomputer (200 Tflops, upgrading to 5 Pflops next spring). This is relevant to my particular field; other researchers here get similar benefits from other exceptional facilities.

Now I suppose the last bit of this post sounds like an advertisement, and I can't really help that. In light of all this, I don't plan to leave any time soon.

I've been planning a series of retrospective posts on this topic for my blog. I will link to that here if I get around to writing it.

Some updates in response to comments:

  • KAUST is committed to avoiding gender (and other types of) discrimination. There are very many women (married and single) who work at KAUST. There are many families in which both spouses work. I can add that the opportunities for women to work in Saudi Arabia (outside of KAUST) have increased dramatically in the last couple of years. As of 2016, KAUST's student body is 40% female and about 40% Saudi, so I'd guess around 16% are Saudi women. Hundreds of Saudi women work at KAUST. They are treated no differently from foreign (or male) students/employees.
  • Because most of us have close ties to groups in the US and Europe, KAUST researchers travel a lot. We also have a large, steady stream of international visitors. For instance, the last three presidents of my professional society have each given a seminar at KAUST.
  • 4
    @DavidKetcheson This isn't terribly related to the question, but as someone with a spouse, I'm curious. What are the opportunities for your wife, if she chose to work outside the home? Would that be possible?
    – Michael A
    Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 13:21
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    @DavidKetcheson Your answer is so much one-sided that it sound like "propaganda". Is there anything negative at-all at KAUST? What if your partner want to peruse career and do not belongs to academia? Is it possible to get job outside campus? What if you are homosexual, is it easy to get visa for partner? What if your field of study is political science, human rights or philosophy of atheism?
    – d.putto
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 15:35
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    I'm curious about the response to @d.putto's comment too. I have heard that "the opportunities for women to work in Saudi Arabia (outside of KAUST) have increased dramatically in the last couple of years", but a dramatic increase from an extremely small baseline is still a small amount.
    – Michael A
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 13:44
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    @d.putto If you don't mind living in an absolute monarchy where homosexuality is punishable by death (for example, since you asked if a homosexual partner could more easily get a visa...) and political opponents are routinely executed by the dozen (I'm being literal here), then I'm sure the light teaching load can compensate for that.
    – user9646
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 12:28
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    @seteropere According to Amnesty International, 20 people were executed in the four years preceding 2014 in relation to protests in the Eastern province. This is not difficult information to find, and as you said it's really not the place to discuss this.
    – user9646
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 20:31

This answer is Saudi Arabia specific

As a native of Saudi Arabia, I thought I should speak about the academic life in the country:

Life in General

Are you bound by the restrictive laws the govern most citizens (for example, dress codes or alcohol in Saudi Arabia, or speech in China)?

The very first thing you need to be aware of: you can do (legally) whatever you want in private. That includes everything. I grew up blocks away from U.S. Military campound and I can assure you the life within the compound is just like any western lifestyle. However, in public, there are some rules you need to be aware of;

So yes, you need to follow some generic rules in public. In private no one going to question your behaviour.

Life as an academic

how the institutions/governments of these countries treat researchers who are not citizens

In Saudi Arabia, there are public and private universities. The public universities are regulated and funded by Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE). Most of the universities rules differentiate between citizens and non-citizens (i.e. foreigners). For western academics, this has the advantage of being able to negotiate the salary and other benefits while for citizens its fixed in advanced (based on the qualifications). Unless you are trying to make a revolution in the country, the government has nothing to do with you/your research. All the decisions related to a faculty member take place within the department/college then get approved by the university president office.

Do you expect to stay at this institution for your career, or will you eventually try to return to your home country/a western country?

I have never seen a western professor stay for a long term (i.e. 10+ years). Most of the people I have seen at KSU, leave after 5 to 10 years. I believe there are many reasons to this. Most importantly, the research environment, kids going to schools and I have good money by now.


KAUST has a special consideration (I believe its not even regulated by MOHE) to the extent which makes all the above (about other universities) as incorrect. KAUST is a westernised place more than any other part of Saudi Arabia. KAUST staff, faculty members and students ,unlike most of the other universities in Saudi Arabia, are diverse and came from different cultures, countries and faiths.

That being said, I am not a western academic and I believe @David Ketcheson has a word in this

  • 6
    you can do (legally) whatever you want in private How do you reconcile this with e.g. this document explaining that mere possession of alcohol, adultery, homosexual acts... can result in "severe sanctions"? (As far as I'm aware, homosexuality is punishable by death, so "severe sanctions" is more than a euphemism.) The US military base you mention probably benefits from extraterritoriality / a special agreement and isn't governed by Saudi jurisdiction at all.
    – user9646
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 12:37
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    @NajibIdrissi Alcohol if its supplied by your embassy and you are drinking it in private. Then there is nothing wrong with that. All severe sanctions comes when you do it in public or invite Saudis to party with you. Same goes for homosexual.
    – seteropere
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 18:32

It's an interesting question and I can give you an answer from personal experience as I studied in China for two semesters at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law.

I do not know if the rules at Tsinghua are that much stricter than there, but I didn't really experience any problems.

They checked daily if all students were in their dorms at 10pm - at least for the Chinese who would be punished upon failing to comply with this regulation (it could mean to fail an entire year or be expelled if being missing too often!). However, missing Westerners were simply ignored. The monitors would sometimes send a message to make sure everything is fine and politely request to be back soon, but that was it. Generally speaking, as a foreigner you can ignore many rules and even some laws without getting in any trouble. It may seem unfair but that's just the reality there.

Also considering other problems like privacy issues and internet censorship you are pretty free as a foreigner. The latter I circumvented by VPN and when I would hang my coat on the security camera in an internet café, nobody cared.

I once didn't register properly (actually it was the police station's fault) and when I wanted to prolongate my visa, I simply had to write down the date and address of my arrival on a slip of paper and sign it - problem solved.

I do not know what experiences others made but China was and still is easy-going in these aspects as long as you are a Westerner.

// Corrigendum: I changed "foreigner" to "Westerner" in the last sentence as the Chinese are easy-going on white foreigners from the West. A total different story is the treatment of Indians and Africans who sadly face strong prejudices by many people (though this is changing at least in the better developed parts of the country).

  • 1
    It is weird that in China, you get more freedom and even privilege as a foreigner. I expect that every country should care its own citizens more, shouldn't it? (Assuming absolute fairness does not exist) Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 16:04
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    @Farticle Pilter Lesson from sociology, the dominant culture of this world is dominant in a global sense, not just a local sense. By dominant culture I really do mean the Anglo-Saxon culture which had arose during the late 19th century - why else would I be typing and speaking in English? Note that race and perception also plays as a factor in a major way. It is bitter sweet when one realize that our academic microsm has to obey the rule of the world at large no matter how insane, illogcal and unfair they sometimes are
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 3:17
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    Being a non-citizen and non-PR in the US, one has limited choices in many applications. But an American in other countries enjoy some sort of privilege. Interesting. Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 5:15
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    @Cape Code This is an extremely easy question, but take it with a grain of salt as nothing governs all cultures equally. One for example is a general social conservatism in academia. This is of course induced by the social conservatism of the society at large. One extreme example I can think of is the case of Belle De Jour, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_de_Jour_(writer) who was engaging in prostitution while doing academic work. Of course in this case their university is fine with it, but then again it is in a liberal state in Europe. The outcome would be vastly different elsewhere.
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 23:28
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    Of course, the race issue and gender disparity are generally well known, I think that it would be best to leave it to another thread/QA/forum entirely
    – Fraïssé
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 23:37

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