What is history’s return on investment? We get asked that question regularly—especially during economic downturns. Why should a company or organization invest in heritage management when it is feeling pressure to cut costs at every turn? Where, and when, is the payback?

The main road north out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, following the Red Sea coast, doesn’t seem like the most direct route to finding an answer to this question, until you take the turn-off to the fishing village of Thuwal. Next to the village with its simple, traditional dwellings and boats pulled up on the beach rises a futuristic complex of buildings at the center of a massive construction project.

Here, more than 30,000 workers scramble to complete work on what many hope will create a new paradigm in graduate-level science and technology research: King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). The clock is ticking—opening day is September 5; faculty will begin arriving to fit out their labs as early as July. I have a front-row seat for the action. KAUST is a client, and I am here documenting the creation of the university.

KAUST aspires not only to be the MIT of the Middle East, though that would qualify as a stretch goal for any institution in the region. Its champions, including the King himself, see the university as becoming what MIT would be, if it could start over from scratch.

Eschewing traditional university models that begin training students at the undergraduate level to be the next generation of managers and leaders, KAUST’s student body will include only graduate-level young men and women from around the world. Rather than being organized by academic department, it will be based around interdisciplinary centers of research. The goal is to produce game-changing research in fields that will benefit the region and world, including plant-stress genomics and desalinization, photo-voltaics, catalysis, and computational science and mathematics.

Interesting, maybe, but what does this have to do with history and return on investment? In endowing KAUST, King Abdullah is very deliberately drawing on the proud history of regional science and scholarship that characterized the Golden Age of Islamic learning. This isn’t an inward-looking exercise or static concept locked in the past, however. KAUST’s vision is firmly focused on the future, to tap the best of tradition and use it to help fuel scientific scholarship and technological advances.

Saudi Arabia hasn’t been immune to the boom-era vanity projects constructed in neighboring Dubai. These looming “ghost towers”—temporarily abandoned construction sites—will cast long shadows over Dubai’s economy for years to come. In KAUST, however, the country is leveraging the best of an esteemed tradition to yield returns that it hopes will drive the next stage in the development of Saudi society and help diversify its oil-dependent economy. If it pays off, that will produce a ROI of incalculable value.