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SAUDI ARABIA: Will new university bring freedoms?

September 24, 2009 |  7:26 am

KAUST PIC

Saudi Arabia’s first coeducational university, a graduate research institution known as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, is a test of “whether the kingdom is prepared to expand academic freedoms and women’s rights,” said Human Rights Watch.

The university, which opened Wednesday, is located about 50 miles north of the Red Sea city of Jidda. The Saudi-based English-language daily Arab News featured a glowing -- some would say glorifying -- account of the inauguration ceremony:

“Breathtaking, spectacular and just amazing." That is how Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony of the multibillion-dollar King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was described by a large section of the nearly 3,000 guests that included prominent Saudis, foreign leaders, Nobel laureates, researchers, scientists and journalists.”

The university prides itself with a high-tech campus and state-of-the-art labs, and boasts the world's 14th-fastest supercomputer. It has partnerships with leading foreign universities and has so far attracted about 70 professors and 800 students from 61 countries.

The institution breaks a number of the Islamic kingdom’s social taboos, including allowing men and women to mix freely in classes and not forcing women to wear veils. In all other Saudi universities, women and men are taught separately and male professors lecture to female students via video link.

Critics say the university is an artificial world, an enclave cut off from the rest of the kingdom, where mostly foreign students will study in a slick multibillion-dollar bubble. It is another example, they say, of how Saudi oil money can build grand schemes for science and technology but cannot change the restrictions of an ultraconservative society.  

“The question is whether KAUST will live up to its apparent commitments to freedom and to gender equality,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “It remains to be seen whether the university will be an island of freedom in an ocean of repression, or whether it can help spread freedoms to other parts of the kingdom.”

So far, Saudi universities have not protected academic standards. Human Rights Watch quotes a communique that was sent to all university presidents in March from the Ministry of Higher Education which forbids education officials, including academics, from “any direct communication with foreign parties or cooperation with diplomatic missions or international organizations in the kingdom.”

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A news conference at the university's opening. Credit: Associated Press

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