EL GOUNA - In Samih Sawiris’ world, “small scale” is not a concept that gets much play. Over the years, the scion of Egypt’s richest family has shown a flair for the oversized, even to the point of eccentricity. Twenty years ago Sawiris bought up around 40 million square meters of sand and rock and “carved paradise out of the desert,” creating the Red Sea resort of El Gouna.
Today, more than 20,000 live or holiday at “the lagoon,” with its two marinas, hotels, 100 restaurants, and 18-hole golf course. Sawiris went on to create similarly extravagant resorts in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, and presently has a project in Switzerland representing an investment estimated at over a billion dollars.
By contrast, Sawiris’ new undertaking seems almost trivial. The 55-year-old believes that “every city needs a university” – and since El Gouna didn’t have one, he built one and gifted it to the Berlin Institute of Technology (Technische Universität Berlin, TU Berlin). Outside, the El Gouna campus features a lush “Nubian-Oriental” style. However, with professors imported from Berlin, and a curriculum aligned with Berlin’s higher education laws, a very different vibe prevails inside.
Welcome to the El Gouna Central Institute, a German exclave under the palm trees of Egypt but completely independent from the Egyptian state and Ministry of Education. Here, 30 students are beginning their Masters degree programs. They will spend two years attending lectures on Water Engineering, Energy Engineering or Urban Development in the elegant, dark wood paneled lecture hall, enjoying breaks in the classy, shaded inner court with an artificial stream running through it, or the lounge with its leather sofas.
Thirty students to the TU’s 30,000; a mere three courses of study offered; only seven buildings and 23 in admin and lab staff – sometimes even Samih Sawiris’ world is small scale.
TU President Professor Jörg Steinbach calls the El Gouna campus – the university’s first facility outside Germany – "a small pearl, strategically located between the Middle East and North Africa." According to university estimates, construction cost Orascom Hotels & Development, of which Samih Sawiris is the CEO, around 38 million euros. Annual operating costs of between one and two million euros will be paid by Sawiris, as well as by the 5,000 euros per semester tuition each student pays.
That Sawiris chose TU for El Gouna is no accident: he is an alumnus. The fluent German speaker got a degree in Economic Engineering there in 1980.
Exporting German education
Steinbach recalls that when Sawiris first approached TU six years ago, "we were surprised but also delighted at the prospect of exporting the education we offer.” The three course options were especially designed with the needs of the Middle East and North Africa region in mind – dry or semi-dry areas with growing populations and increased energy needs but where relatively little renewable energy is used.
TU professors spent two years developing the programs offered in El Gouna – and only offered there – out of existing modules mixed with new material. About half of the El Gouna students are from Egypt, the other half from countries around the world. To apply, they need a BA and a year of work experience. Of the first 100 that applied, 70 qualified and only 30 signed on is, which is normal according to Krystyna Schneider, the El Gouna campus’s deputy managing director. "We were actually surprised at the keen interest – a new university usually needs one or two years to get up and running." German students are not preferred over others, she said.
Ahmed Aly from Cairo, a 26-year-old electrical engineer, is studying Energy Engineering at El Gouna. Through research, he says, he wants “to help create good living conditions for people.” He is familiar with his country’s energy woes. During Ramadan, he recounts, air conditioning systems, ventilators and televisions all stop working because of power outages. "And we can’t do anything about it except wait,” he says, pointing out that part of the problem lies with the country’s infrastructure. "You may only need to go a short stretch in a city, but it will take you two hours – the traffic is crazy."
While Aly put some money away from the years when he worked as an electro designer, without one of the 15 scholarships that Sawiris is financing he couldn’t afford the school’s tuition fees: 5,000 euros is a great deal in a country where the average monthly salary is 200 euros. Aly is also hoping to get help with his living costs so he can move into one of the campus apartments: 35 square meters cost 200 euros a month, and a larger, two-story studio costs 100 euros more.
Whether the TU El Gouna campus grows to accommodate the student body of 500 for which it was designed also depends on whether enough German staff from the Berlin university want to work there, the university says. If that were the case, they could also offer bachelor degrees. They already have one supporter for that idea: "Mr. Sawiris sees us as a social project," says deputy managing director Schneider. "And he says there’s still a lot of room left in El Gouna."