To answer this question, let me borrow an expression from one of my Saudi friends:
"When the cows preform Hajj walking on their horns."
The New York Times published an article about KAUST last week in which Ben Frevert, my friend and colleague, was unexpectedly presented as a hero - of sorts.
I was a little embarrassed at the cultural insensitivity of the New York Times in this article. The title, "A Saudi Gamble," does injustice to the people and to the King who have invested so much time, energy, and money to make KAUST a reality, and is ironically insulting to our host country which sees gambling as immoral and illegal.
Next time I go to Jeddah, I half expect someone to ask me, "Is it true that you have gambling at KAUST?" Thanks a lot, Times.
The article's title and opening were crafted to sell papers more than to look seriously at the complexity of Saudi culture or the nuance of KAUST's situation in Saudi Arabia. I though that the article's overall tone either reflects the writer's sever Western bias, or a general unawareness of Saudi society and politics. Mr. Slackman does, however, address a few points about KAUST well and the article is worth a quick read.
So, can Ben Frevert (or any American graduate student) change Saudi Arabia? Not likely. First, US students are a minority at KAUST. We are outnumbered by Jordanians, Egyptians, Indonesians, Chinese, and Mexicans. Second, even all of these students together will not "change" Saudi Arabia. This country is very complex, and I agree with Saleha M. Abedin's answer to Slackman's question: "You cannot bring change from the outside, you have to build from within."
Something else to think about: change works both ways. KAUST's detractors in Saudi Arabia are paranoid about KAUST's influence on Saudi Society, but what about KAUST's influence on the rest of the world? The question: "can Saudi Arabia change Ben Frevert (and all of the others who come to KAUST?)" is just as valid. For students who have never left their home countries before, even just three months at KAUST and a few trips to Jeddah are a tremendous perspective-altering experience.
There are still some Westerners (and maybe some Western newspaper writers) who wrongly think all Saudis drive camels and carry AK-47's. KAUST, an aspiring multinational research institution, will slowly change these prejudices too.