First mixed-gender university a beacon of reform

Saudi Arabia has opened its first co-educational university on a state-of-the-art campus on the Red Sea. Reformers hope the multi-billion dollar site will help modernise Saudi society and bolster the country's credentials in scientific research.


REUTERS - Saudi Arabia opened its first co-educational university on Wednesday, a high-tech campus with massive funds which reformers hope will spearhead change in the Islamic state.

Western diplomats hope the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which has attracted more than 70 professors and 800 students from abroad, will usher reform after recent setbacks such as shelving municipal elections planned for this year and cancelling cultural events opposed by clerics.

King Abdullah was due to inaugurate late on Wednesday the university 80 km (50 miles) north of Jeddah in the presence of regional leaders, Western officials and Nobel laureates.

The 85-year-old monarch has promoted reforms since taking office in 2005 to create a modern state, stave off Western criticisms and lower dependence on oil.

But he faces resistance from conservative clerics and princes in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's top oil exporters.

Al Qaeda militants launched a campaign against the state in 2003, blaming the royal family for corruption and its alliance with the United States. It was mainly Saudis who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against U.S. cities.

Officials who back Abdullah fear that without reforms young people will be drawn to militancy in the future.

Supporters are presenting KAUST as a tangible gain for the king's plans, which have included more long-term projects such as an overhaul of courts, the education system and building "economic cities" to create jobs for the young population.

"KAUST is eventually some tangible result after so much was planned and so little done," said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

Former U.S. diplomat John Burgess wrote in his Saudi blog "Crossroads Arabia": "There is truly no other university in the world so well-equipped. Anywhere. The issue is, of course, what is to be done with the equipment and that remains to be seen".

One of the main goals is to produce Saudi scientists but so far locals, who had to compete in a tough admission, make up only 15 percent of students coming from 61 countries, said KAUST President Choon Fong Shih of Singapore.

"There is no doubt that many of the talented Saudis will enrol at this university," said Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, adding that KAUST would impact Saudi society as a whole.

Middle of nowhere

Located next to the Red Sea village of Thuwal, the 36-square mile campus has lured scientists from abroad with luxury packages and a life far from the reality of the Islamic state where clerics have wide powers over society in an alliance with the Saudi ruling family.

"The community's design facilitates access to the Red Sea and encourages active, healthy living and group interaction," says the KAUST website. Unlike in Saudi universities, male and women students can attend classes together and mix in cafes.

With more than 70 green spaces, gyms, clinics, spacious residential districts and staff driving around in electric cars there is no reason to leave the campus, which is based far away from the prying eyes of the religious police.

Staff hires were full of praise for the university.

"One of the motivations (to come here) was that ... anything that I would dream of is here," said India's Kultaransingh Hooghan, a computer researcher who just relocated to Thuwal.

"There is no barrier in science," said Jasmeen Merzaban, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the university. "Whether you are a woman or a man, working side by side you don't look at the gender at all. It's all based on science."

KAUST is run by state oil company Aramco, which has a similar liberal enclave at its headquarters in Dhahran on the Gulf coast. It is outside the control of the education ministry.

Columnist Abdullah al-Alami, who worked at Aramco, said more Saudis must enrol to make KAUST a success.

"Fifteen percent is a small start, but remember that when Aramco was established the percentage of Saudis was less than 5 percent. Today, Saudi employees make up more than 90 percent of Aramco population," he said.

But analysts and diplomats say Saudi Arabia needs reform of its state education system.

"KAUST is impressive but starts at the wrong end. Instead of pumping billions into universities you need to reform primary schools focusing on religion," said another Western diplomat.

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