Saudis launch a new school of thought

Elite university will break ancient gender barriers

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened its doors to students this week. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened its doors to students this week. (AFP/ Getty Images)
By Tarek El-Tablawy
Associated Press / September 24, 2009

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CAIRO - Saudi Arabia has dug into its oil-fueled coffers to set up a new research university, a multibillion-dollar coed institution built on the promise of scientific freedom in a region where a conservative interpretation of Islam has often been blamed for stifling innovation.

The King Abdullah Science and Technology University - complete with state-of-the-art labs, the world’s 14th-fastest supercomputer, and one of the biggest endowments worldwide - opened this week on a sprawling campus nestled along the Red Sea coast about 50 miles north of the commercial center of Jeddah.

Saudi officials have envisaged the postgraduate institution as a key part of the kingdom’s plans to transform itself into a global scientific hub, the latest effort in the oil-rich Gulf region to diversify its economic base.

“Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists, who speak the language of hatred,’’ King Abdullah said at the inauguration. “Undoubtedly, scientific centers that embrace all peoples are the first line of defense against extremists. And today this university will become a house of wisdom, a beacon of tolerance.’’

But the university, whether its founders intend it or not, has the potential to represent one of the clearest fault lines in a battle between conservatives and modernizers in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is the most religiously strict country in the Middle East, with total segregation of the sexes, and it practices Wahhabi Islam, a byword for conservatism around the region. But the university will not require women to wear veils or cover their faces, and they will be able to mix freely with men.

They will also be allowed to drive, a taboo in a country where women must literally take a back seat to their male drivers.

“We see the beginning of a community that is unique in Saudi Arabia,’’ the university’s president, Choon Fong Shih, said yesterday.

“We recruit the very best in the world . . . and we give them the freedom to pursue their scientific interests,’’ said Shih, a mechanical engineer by training who headed the National University of Singapore for nine years.

While it takes decades to develop the type of world-class institution that the university hopes to become, the school’s breakneck inception in many ways reflects Saudi Arabia’s rise to wealth and power in the global political and economic arena.