Friday, December 22, 2017

Experience as a Visiting Student at KAUST, Saudi Arabia

The beautiful KAUST Grand Mosque
I am back to Portugal after my 4 months of migrations including 2 months at KAUST, Saudi Arabia. Now I am full-time into my core Ph.D. research.

Overall, my experience of 2 months at KAUST was very positive, though a few experiences came as pretty shocking. I list below a few observations I found maybe relevant for you as an upcoming visiting student/scholar to KAUST. Several points in this post may not be accurate for you, if you are a KAUST faculty, employee, or a student.

1. Frequent Apartment migrations
My 1st apartment, all for me!
I was asked to move out of my beautiful apartment after 2.5 weeks of arrival. Upon questioning, I found that visiting Ph.D. students are usually given a room in a 3-room apartment. Since KAUST did not have a room empty for me right at my arrival time, they let me stay in an apartment. Then they still did not have a "regular" room. So they let me stay 10 days in a room in a 3-room apartment managed by KAUST-Inn. I had the master bedroom. There was a  SHARP-brand TV in my room. Cleaning service thrice a week, including the room. Nevertheless, I never let them clean my room, as I find that unnecessary for the 10 days. I also had my own bathroom. However, the other 2 rooms had to share a single bathroom.

My room in the second apartment
Finally, they got a room for me in a regular student apartment - my 3rd place during my 2 month-long stay. The apartment had 3 rooms. I was in the smallest room. But all the rooms had their own bathroom. So we just got to share the kitchen and the living room. I stayed in this room for a month, until I leave the Kingdom. Even this small room was big enough. We do not have a cleaning service for these student apartments, unlike those managed by the KAUST Inn. It is not necessary anyway for just a month-long stay.

This will be the typical view from your apartment
One would wonder what is the necessity for such a weird migration strategy when there was plenty of empty space. I later learned that it is a resource allocation strategy according to the policy (i.e., They must maximize the time I spend in a shared student apartment). Sounds weird, and especially when this migration plan comes as a surprise to you only days before you really have to move. But that is KAUST for you.

A nightly walk
No one from KAUST has blogged or mentioned about these KAUST apartment migrations before. If you happen to visit my blog, be informed that you may have to switch your apartment in the middle of your stay. My advice - when you get your keys from the SGA (Students Guest Apartment) for the first time, confirm whether you will indeed stay in this apartment during your entire stay, or ask them to give your migration plan (which dates you will be expected to move to a new apartment). It will help you plan when to buy stuff (you don't want to move between apartments with lots of food items). Of course, you can get a taxi free of charge from KAUST for these inner-mandatory-migrations. Also, remember that these apartments are free and registered free of charge for the students with no effort from students' end. Much kudos for that!
The major shopping square
Make sure to bring ethernet cables and a router. There is Internet connection with several Internet sockets in the apartments. But you mostly will need your own cables and the router. It will help if you bring them with you so that you can connect instantly once you are home in KAUST. Especially if you are the only one in the apartment, you won't even have the choice to ask your roommate for the password of their router.

2. Noisy Open Workspaces
A lonely sunset
I am okay with sharing office space with 5 - 6 Ph.D. students. We do that in INESC-ID. But all the students are silent and do not make random noises. In all my universities of my Ph.D. time, I shared office space with 0 - 5 students. What came as a surprise? KAUST loves open workspaces with up to 30 students. Our open room is on the ground floor. The laborers and security guards love to walk around and even play music without earphones during the weekend (yes, I like working on weekends too). Also other students in the room like to make calls and do meetings right in the room, making it have a large white noise. It is not a productive environment for students at all.

Uniform apartment buildings
Just like others, I learned to play some music (usually Chinese or Romanian music) in my earphone, so that I do not need to listen to random people (workers and students) speaking in Malayalam, Arabic, Filipino, Chinese, or Russian. Who invented this open workspace for Ph.D. students and developers who need to use their brain? Is it to show the developers are the new blue collar? I would recommend KAUST to invest some money in making workspaces with smaller (up to 6) number of persons in each room. To give a balanced overview, my friends were okay with the noisy environment wearing noise-canceling headphones. I am not really into headphones or earphones though.

3. Communication black holes
Line of apartments
There was a guy in SGA. He is like a communication black hole. You give him some request. He will reply, "Yes, Sir. Sure, Sir. I will make it done soon, Sir", with a big smile. His task finishes here. He does nothing except this kind gesture and a big smile to you. You better send an email to the system - you will get the work done. There is also these stateless support call centers I experienced in many places (not really in KAUST). Every time you make a call, details discussed in the previous calls are lost. You must always start from Ground 0. Actually, sending an email always worked in KAUST (better than dealing with the communication black hole I mentioned).

4. Queue Jumpers
Queue jumping is quite the norm in many Asian countries. KSA is not an exception. Be prepared to face the person behind you counting their chance to jump the queue when possible, especially outside the university, such as the airport.

A magnificent View
5. Stipend and Reimbursements
You are going to get the stipend or scholarship in cash, by default, as a visiting scholar. I don't think you are going to open a local bank for such a short period.

Initially, I asked KAUST whether they can send the money to my bank in Portugal. They were willing to. But then I checked with my bank and found they are going to charge me for incoming currency exchange fees. Also my actual funding was from Belgium while I was in KAUST (my case was a bit more complex than a regular case). So what KAUST had to give me was just the visa fees and some travel expenses I incurred. So it was not a huge money, and I chose to get it in cash.

6. Currency Exchange
Line of date palms
The airport gives you the best transaction rate (I know that is unbelievable). Saudi Riyal (SAR) -> USD is fixed at 3.75 -> 1 always throughout the country. So getting it in $ will be the best. But even Euro, although fluctuates, gives the actual transaction amount, rather than a reduced amount other airports give. I just exchanged all my remaining SAR into Euro in cash at the airport before flying back to EU. Just make sure to exchange all the money before you leave the country to Euro or USD. SAR is useless outside Saudi Arabia. The airport offers options to exchange money from SAR to a wide range of currencies, including several Asian countries' currencies which are typically unexchangeable outside those countries.

View from our lab building
You can get a great currency exchange between SAR -> USD, as USD -> SAR is fixed at 3.75. At the airport, you can get 3.72 SAR for 1 USD, and buy 1 USD with 3.77 SAR. However, the USD often runs out for a smaller amount. Remember, it is the best deal in KSA to convert back and forth between USD and SAR than from another currency. The time I left the country, the money exchanger at the airport had only 100 USD notes. Not the small notes. Same for GBP. However, he had 20 Euro notes. So I got 20 Euro for 91 SAR. Not a bad deal either. So exchanging money at the airport is a great deal in Jeddah airport compared to many other airports in the world. Airport money exchanges in the US and the EU eat your money. 

7. Expensive Local Supermarket
View from the canal bridge
Things were quite expensive in the Tamimi supermarkets, the only supermarket chains in KAUST. Almost all the things were imported from the USA. I heard from my Saudi roommate that the 800 g dates I bought for 89 SAR (around 20 Euro) can be bought for 5% of its price (for 1 Euro) outside KAUST (in Thuwal or Jeddah).

8. Clumsy Airport
The Jeddah airport is clumsy, dirty, and nasty. The need to put the electronics into the checked in luggage for the flights to the UK gives an additional overhead. The flights are booked by KAUST (thanks for them to manage this and pay for the flights). However, that also means they will book you the cheapest of the flights, understandably. I could have transited through any other airports to arrive in the EU/Brussels. But they chose British Airways (BA)/London LHR for me, making to go through this painful exercise of placing the computer, tablet, and digital camera into the checked in luggage. Regardless of my previous bad experience, British Airways did not damage or delay my luggage. My electronic items were safe, also thanks to my careful packing (I placed my laptop between two pillows!) The airport is a chaos, with lots of clueless pilgrims (it serves as the main airport for the Hajj pilgrims arriving to Mecca) wandering around and jumping queues. Probably the airport will remain the worst part of the visit to KAUST.

9. Lots of Savings $$$
The Red Sea
There are, of course, lots of freebies from KAUST, including accommodation and transportation - including the flight and ground transportation. Your money is just for your food. 3.5 $ for lunch or dinner from the canteen, which probably gives the best canteen food in the world (I have tried university canteen food in around 10 countries, including, Sri Lanka, France, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Croatia, and USA. ;)) Assuming you have both lunch and dinner from the canteen, and some cereal for breakfast, your daily expense would be 8 $. 240$ is sufficient for your food. You can watch movies at the cinema! Very cheap - 5 SAR or 1.50$. 300$ is sufficient for you for a comfortable life there. Remaining money you get from KAUST is for your entertainment or savings. Your choice.

Sunset in the Red Sea
There were times my friends and I were watching several movies at the cinema there (they even show Indian movies, and change the movies every few days) - because it was very cheap! We did bird watching and fine dining (for a low price and often free with the professors when we welcome faculty candidates or visiting professors!). There are many good aspects in KAUST that you won't find anywhere else in KSA or elsewhere. I was in KAUST during autumn to winter. KAUST winter was equal to the Portuguese summer. Enjoyable weather. One day it rained and flooded Jeddah city. No big damage in KAUST though. We also encountered a minor sandstorm one day.

If you have read until the end, most likely you are considering to visit KAUST yourself as a visiting student. Go for it. It is a pleasant experience, overall!

Further Reading: 
[1] My arrival at KAUST.
[2] My research at KAUST.


  1. Hi,

    I am planning to visit KAUST as a VS and I found your blog posts very informative! I am from the University of Moratuwa as well. I would love to know more about you experiences and have some questions to ask you. Can I message you or an email perhaps ?

    1. Hi Athif,
      Good luck. I am really happy to hear about your achievement, especially from my university in Sri Lanka. Of course, feel free to email me any time. [kk.pradeeban] in gmail.


  2. Hi,
    I am visiting a KAUST this year as summer visiting student intern. Currently, I am waiting for the visa letter from Visiting Student Department of KAUST and they said that will send in few days. In your case, was this process fast, how long did it take for issuance of visa? Is it probably the last stage of application? I am expected to start an internship approximately on 16-17 of May. Is time left enough for visa preparation and buying flight tickets? Thank you

    1. Yes, you have plenty of time. Don't worry. KAUST takes their visiting students seriously. At any time you need help from them, don't be shy. Ask them. They will be more than happy to help you with visa, flights, etc.

    2. Big thanks for your response,
      Also, wanted to ask about an interview with admissions department. What advice you can give, if it is possible could you please write what type of questions you were asked. Is it important for acceptance as first interview which is held with professor?

    3. That's an interview to confirm you fit culturally. It was smooth and fun for me. I had a gentleman and a lady in the interview panel. They basically asked how did I get to know KAUST and about my studies - and why I was living and studying in several countries. My friend who never lived abroad had different questions - such as what does he expect living abroad, specifically in KAUST/KSA.

      KAUST is in Saudi Arabia (KSA). But it also has slightly open culture. Therefore, remember to respect the Saudi culture, but also be accepting to the fact you will study and live with 100s of nationalities, during the interview and while at KAUST.

      There are people who fail such cultural interviews usually due to arrogance or narrow-mindedness. You chose KAUST, and I am sure you know what to expect and how to be respectful to the land. This interview is of course very important. If one fails it, she/he cannot join KAUST.

      Feel free to get back to me if you have more questions.

  3. Thank you for your help. My friend who also had interview with admissions said there might be questions like aren't you afraid of living in KSA? Is it ok if I just shorlty answer no or should I give clarifications for my answer yes/no?

    1. Such questions would imply there is something to be scared of KSA. Therefore, the interviewer won't ask such direct questions. In other words, there won't be "wrong" questions. Just you, as a student, should be careful not to give wrong answers to the right questions :)

      For example:
      Question: "Why KAUST?"
      Correct answers: "Its research potential and its resources -- it really has loads of computing resources, with super computers", "Career growth opportunities", etc.
      Wrong answers: "I am adventurous", "I just wanted to see how life is in KSA (especially if you say it like you are there as a tourist or journalist)"

      Don't give yes/no answers to open-ended questions. Elaborate in a careful, yet honest manner. Of course, you like KAUST. Otherwise, you won't be applying there anyway.

    2. If some interviewer indeed asked me such question, my answer would be:
      "I have lived and studied in 7 countries and traveled to around 40 countries. I don't find a reason to be scared of studying there."

      (of course, with a smile; not to sound over-confident or arrogant. :) )

  4. Hi, thank you for your response, sorry if I disturbed you again. I wanted to ask you about duration of application process after admissions interview. How much time did it take for your application to be accepted/rejected (accepted in your case) after interview with admissions. I had an interview with them on previous wwednesday, they said that they will contact me soon, but I did not get email from them yet. I was planing to travel to another city for some days and I could not because in a case I am accepted I need to be in current city in order to pick up visa. Therefore, it is being important for me to know when results will be available. I have emailed them about it, but could not get response. I just wanted to now how much time it took in other's case, I appreciate your any response and thank you for your help.

    1. I was in a tight schedule and a limited-time budget. Meaning, I should be there for a specific time interval. No later. Therefore, it was a very fast process. I think it was a same-day response. I could not locate the email now. Within 5 days, they had already sent me the documents for the visa. My supervisor from KAUST was very helpful in getting me settled there. So probably that helped too.

      I recommend a few actions:
      1) Ask your supervisor in KAUST about the status of your admission (or at least cc them in your communications). I am sure they are concerned about your arrival as much as you are. With time, KAUST seems to become more popular and I imagine KAUST admissions may be just busier now.

      2) Keep your travel plans flexible (eg. flexible flight tickets). You can travel. But once you know you are approved, be willing to cut your vacation short and return.

      Now it is too late for you. But for the future applicants, I would recommend asking them, "When would I hear back from you?" when they say "Do you have any questions for us" by the end of the interview process.

      I hope you will be accepted and have a pleasant stay in KAUST. Please let me know how your KAUST experience is, once you are there! :)

    2. Hi, big thanks for your response. I wrote them and I don't know why, but they are considering my application too slowly and did not decided yet, however they are expecting me on KAUST on 17 May. They even did not send any document for visa. The time left is very short. What advice can you give me? Write them again?, I wrote them a lot and could not get any proper information. It is really annoying sometimes)). I really want to have an internship at KAUST, but there were some other alternative good internships, but I declined them because of internship in KAUST. It is feels like that I am really losing my time and missing other chances of internships. Even if I am rejected, I want to hear it at a time, because almost week is left for expected arrival. So, currently I don't know what to do, and asking some advices from you how to write them email to properly explain my situation. Currently, I am having some alternatives for summer internships, and I am not able to make them wait too long.

    3. Hi, big thanks for your response. I wrote them and I don't know why, but they are considering my application too slowly and did not decided yet, however they are expecting me on KAUST on 17 May. They even did not send any document for visa. The time left is very short. What advice can you give me? Write them again?, I wrote them a lot and could not get any proper information. It is really annoying sometimes)). I really want to have an internship at KAUST, but there were some other alternative good internships, but I declined them because of internship in KAUST. It is feels like that I am really losing my time and missing other chances of internships. Even if I am rejected, I want to hear it at a time, because almost week is left for expected arrival. So, currently I don't know what to do, and asking some advices from you how to write them email to properly explain my situation. Currently, I am having some alternatives for summer internships, and I am not able to make them wait too long.

    4. If they are expecting you on May 17th, that means you have been accepted. Right?

      At this point, I would recommend you get your KAUST advisor (the professor who invited you to KAUST) informed and involved. While they maybe slow with you, if you explain your situation to your advisor and then your advisor ask them about the delay, they would give you more priority, I suppose.

      As much as you want to be in KAUST, I am sure they also want to make sure that their international scholars arrive on time. Wish you success.

      Fingers crossed.

    5. Thanks for advise)). In application form they sent me it was written that they are expecting me on May 17. But it was before the interview with admissions. After interview with admissions till now I am waiting their official confirmation. I don't know exactly whether I am finally accepted or not.
      Anyway, Thank you very much. Appreciate your help)

    6. Ok, got it.
      May 5 - June 4 is Ramadan period. That could explain some additional delay from their end.

    7. You are right, they have short working days on Ramadan

  5. Hi!
    I am travelling to KAUST for summer internship. I wanted to ask you about the facilities there. Can we chat?

    1. Good luck. Pls list your questions here. I will reply.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thank you. I am happy you found the blog useful.

      The easiest approach to visit KAUST as a Ph.D. scholar is to contact a KAUST professor, introduce your self and your research, and impress them with your research potential (with a proven record of published papers, or with an interesting project proposal). Then the professor will take care of rest of the things.

      While a few professors may have too many students to manage, some professors may feel happy to have some collaboration from the other side of the world. So I think as long as you are interested and talented, this is pretty straightforward.

      Good luck.

  7. Thanks alot for sharing your experience with us ��
    I have a question, though. You know that we come from different countries with different universities and laboratories that may not always be well-equpied, thus our capabilities and experiens vary alot. Honestly, I am self conscious because I lack both knowledge and practical skills. Does KAUST expect us to already be familiar with all the techniques they use? or are they willing to start with us from scratch and help us improve?
    I really would like to apply and get a chance to develope some workplace skills. I hold a master's degree, but I am still a beginner in microbiology, and I am not sure I can live up to the expectations they have. I don't want to keep telling people about my country and how we struggle to get a decent education. And that we are just glad to be given a chance to perform simple researches.
    Do you think I should apply?

    1. You should definitely apply.

      Your fear is not just limited to KAUST. Whatever advanced university that you apply, you will face the same dilemma.

      My suggestion for you is, just apply. If they accept you, that means they already consider you good enough. You won't be alone. There will be many students coming from several technically-challenged countries/universities. Everyone is talented in something. Even though you may not be experienced in latest microbiology equipment, you may be an expert in theoretical aspects. No need to underestimate yourself.

      Apply. Get selected. Once selected, keep your head high - and confidently join the university (whether it is KAUST or another advanced university such as MIT, Oxford, etc)

  8. Hi, big thanks for your write-up and comments. I am planning to visit a KAUST on this summer as visiting student and the internship will start on 8 June (visa, tickets are already ready). I wanted to ask you about the stipend. I heard that there is a stipend of ~$1000, but I am not notified about that yet. Is it ok if I ask them about it or will they notify me later? Could you please tell something about the stipend? Do all the visiting students get the stipend? If yes, how they get it, in cash or by bank card? Thank you in advance.

    1. Hi Abyl,
      Congratulations on your research visit.

      Please refer to "5. Stipend and Reimbursements" for some details on stipend (there are some updates to the blog post).

      I don't think that is a flat amount. It must vary based on the project and domain. I recommend you ask them to avoid any surprises.

  9. Hi, thanks for sharing this! I am interested in applying to KAUST VSRP. May I know if I can apply to more than one internship in the same department(in case selection is approved in either of them).

    1. I am not sure about that. better to confirm with the university directly.

  10. Hey your blog has been of great information! I am a South African - Indian residing in India. I have completed my M.Sc.Biotechnology from a reputed university in Delhi,India. I wish to apply for either Internship or Kaust PhD programmes. Though I am very fluent orally and verbally in English, is a Toefl score compulsory? TIA

    1. There could be exemptions if your university is entirely English and if your degree certificate and the transcripts clearly indicate that your university is English and all your courses were taught in English. Please check with the KAUST Admissions office.

  11. Hey your blog has been of great information! I am a South African - Indian residing in India. I have completed my M.Sc.Biotechnology from a reputed university in Delhi,India. I wish to apply for either Internship or Kaust PhD programmes. Though I am very fluent orally and verbally in English, is a Toefl score compulsory? TIA

    1. I am not aware of any TOEFL requirements for internships. I would recommend you consult the relevant faculty though.

  12. This may sound as a weird question, but as a single person, is there any dating scene taking place in KAUST?

    1. Not weird at all. This question often comes up in private discussions, although not in public forums.

      With gender-segregation, it is impossible for unmarried couples to date in Saudi Arabia. Rules are much relaxed in KAUST. But KAUST apartments are segregated as males, females, and families. Platonic relationships should be fairly possible. But anything more than that maybe impossible or even illegal (depending on who you ask).

      It can be a tough experience for a single person coming from the liberal countries/cultures -- especially for anything beyond 2 or 3 months.

    2. Thanks for the answer, Pradeeban. One follow-up question if I may: Have you heard of people dating at KAUST, after meeting there? Example: graduate students or even faculty.
      My reasoning is that the place being full of westerners, it may be very difficult to stop this from happening. But maybe, as you said, the rules forbid such things from happening. Let me know your thoughts!

    3. I can give you one interesting observation I made:

      I was walking in KAUST one day with my friend. In front of us were an East-Asian boy and an East-Asian girl. I told my friend, "I am confident they are a couple". He asked "How can you say that? They could be just lab mates like us". I told him, "See how he is holding her small handbag. It is not like the small purse is way too heavy for her".

      Now, when hand-holding in public is frowned upon, this is a small gesture he can do to show her his affection. It could very well be they already knew each other (or even husband and wife, who knows?) before coming to KAUST or just met here. I can only guess.

      I was already married when I went to KAUST. I tried to bring my wife with me. My supervisor said it is impossible (or hard, I don't remember clearly) for visiting Ph.D. students to bring their spouse for such a short-visit (3 months). So I was not looking for dating. Same with my friend. He had to leave his wife in her city during his stay.

      Entire buildings are marked as "male/female/families". I don't think anyone would dare to go to the opposite gender's building. Only option for such meetings would be the "family" apartments.

      Similarly, I have seen many couples hanging out in the streets later in the evening. No one can say whether they are dating or a married couple. I have a feeling (judging from their apparent young age), a few were just dating.

      There could be several booming love relationships. But to be on the right side of the Saudi law, they must remain platonic until you both leave the country. People may have done more and some of these could even be "open secrets". Just I am not aware since I was not looking for that.

      Some cautions:
      1. Don't ask KAUST administrators these questions during your interview. An easy way to fail the interview for mismatch in culture.
      2. Come with an open mind. Don't be disappointed if you find your lab has all males (assuming you are seeking females), or the few females show 0 interest in dating.

      You might as well choose another country which is slightly open in culture(?). I wish you success.

  13. Thank you pradeeban for your explanations, very informative indeed; Regarding bringing one's wife, is it possible to bring your wife if one is going there as Visiting student for 6-months?....because it seems in your last reply your supervisor spoke about short period of 3 months only

    1. I think this will entirely depend on the professor who is sponsoring you. When you are sponsored alone, you will be hosted in one of the male apartments of the community, typically sharing a 3-room apartment with 2 other males. But if you bring your wife, you will be hosted in your own family apartment, typically separated from the male/female apartment blocks.

      As such, sponsoring you with your spouse incurs additional cost. Giving you a whole apartment, rather than just a room being one. As KAUST also manages the flights and visa, this will also mean, they will need to manage you and your spouse's travel arrangement. Typically, double the cost. So I understand their decision not to sponsor spouse for short stays. I would recommend you ask your professor in KAUST. It doesn't hurt anyway to confirm from them. In the worst case, you will receive an explanation why it is not possible (resembling what I have already mentioned here). In the best case, you will be able to bring your spouse with you.

      Good luck!

  14. Thank you for your Pradeeban!! I really appreciate

    1. You are welcome. Feel free to get back to me if you have other questions or updates on this.

  15. Hello Prabeen I have a question.Does KUAST provide visa for its students from abroad or do students have to apply for the visa themselves?

    1. They send you all the necessary supportive documents, and typically work with an agent in your country for the visa application. Then you go to that agent and produce your passport with the documents you have. So it is a collective effort, with very little effort from you (since they arrange all these and pay for this service).

      I believe this may be different based on different countries and positions.

  16. And regarding arrival will they mention you about the contact person at Jeddah airport?Or will he recognise you

    1. He will hold an indication or notice mentioning "KAUST" (or even your name, if you are the only one arriving at that time). In both cases, you can wave at him and introduce yourself when you see him upon arrivals.


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