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SAUDI ARABIA: Will new university bring freedoms?

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

Comments () | Archives (16)

I wish this university to sucess in future.May allah gives his blessings too......Muslim students have make this world with happiness by their new inventions & research.

"In all other Saudi universities, women and men are taught separately and male professors lecture to female students via video link."

This isn't true. While that may be the case with most universities, it can't be said that it's the case for them all. Male professors teach female students, face-to-face, on a daily basis at the Prince Sultan University in Riyadh (one of the most conservative of Saudi cities). Please verify your facts before publishing.

Every country has to start somewhere. Hopefully this is the start for Saudi to get out of the dark ages that European church abandoned centuries ago. But there is also a legitimate risk that this "high tech university" will remain just another conclave like ARAMCO compound.

@Alshammari: There is no racism in legitimate criticism. I am a Muslim and is appalled by how backward Saudis are in their worldview. While spending petrodollars in teaching poor Muslims in Asia about the virtues of modesty, your princes relish on private Airbuses and other vulgarities. I am a person who believes that if there were no oil in Saudi Arabia, Muslim world would have been better off as your backward version of Islam is basically opposed to civilization.

By reading comments from western about Saudi Arabia, I could clearly see racsim still exist. They hate everything about Saudi or the Arab world as a whole. They hate Arabs so much that they hate natural resources that lies around them. Oil, for example, is a gift and natural resource of energy but hey it's bad! It's unlike coal or water, no no Arab oil is bad just as bad as Arabs.

Like everything in Saudi Arabia it is purchased with money and praised as an Saudi Achievement. Hospitals can only function because they purchase the skilled professionals from overseas, Oil is extracted because of Western technology, Army is equipped with Western Arms. Saudis do not procude anything, contribute nothing to human society except horrific disregard for human rights and human beings. KAUST is just another piece with the Kings name on it that shows the that the Saudis have money but it will have no significant impact on anything in science. After all they have still not learned to treat women equally, a sickening society that drives on low paid manpower (not to say slaves from the Far East) and a Royal Family that shows of the money and may be hopes to impress the west by this.
Look out for the Wahabies that live in the stone age and have still not understood that impressive buildings do not reflect society. Saudi is no country of Science and no country of Human development.

to Ayub Qosim
I would not give you the warmth off my fart to heat your coffee.

This is a step forward for humanity as big as when Mandela brought the end of apartheid in South Africa. Saudi Arabia had remained the last bastion of absolute oppression. The move to build this university to educate men and women together was brilliant.

Women's rights have come a long way since the 12th century English law "the rule of thumb" that stated you cannot beat your wife with a stick bigger than your thumb. However there is still a billion women who are denied free access to public spaces with ridiculous restrictions such having to cover up.

The strategy in Saudi Arabia to create new space such as a university to introduce new social rules of contact between men and women is sound and will help introduce a new social norm. This new freedom will spread to the rest of the country that will soon turn into a a democracy that will protect all human rights including religious freedom.

Theresienstadt was built by the Nazis to show the Red Cross how well the Jews were being treated in occupied Czechoslovakia. It was just for show. It's hard to see a lot of difference between that and KAUST. It appears to be really nice, but nothing like the other camps, er, universities.

Good start and best wishes to the students and the faculty

It's a good start to bring science back to the middle east. Islam kill scientific innovations,arts,music,but The primary reason why the Saudis crated this university was to keep their citizen home.

For many decade Saudi families end their kids in the United states for Study but since 2001 a lot of things change.The second reason is to copy china and other emerging nations who invest vast amount of their wealth in R&D as an investment in the future.
The Saudis are best know for spending billions in useless American Cadillacs abandoned to rust in the desert.Or to dilapidate trillions in Switz hotel with European top models,French casinos where they were guarantied to loose.

Now they reached the staged of weasedom when they realized that oil money is not for ever and other countries like India and japan can create vast wealth without oil.Young Saudis are top spender who travel the world for pleasure until they decide to come back to Islamic fundamentalist when they get totally disillusioned by the very excess they created.Osama is a good example of that profile.Once a young pleasure seeker playboy, now an aged mountain rate somewhere in Afghanistan.

Dear Ms. Sandels

The write question that should been asked is( How briliant human rights is ? they prefer watching our luxury life we women have in Saudi Arabia rather than helping the people in America who suffer from the economical crises and got fired from their jobs with no plan to go on ?

we women in Saudi Arabia , even if we didn't work we got fund from the government, and we don't pay any tax at all to the government.

we have lots of things to live with happiness, money, home, .... etc.

why the headache with driving cars, why illegal pregnancy and abortion and killing human kind, why free sexual life comes with lots of dangerous ill?

I think the ultroconserative sociery will not get affected by leeting oe allowing acadimic mixed freedom in either to learn, and that is a reason, because its about educational subjests such as scienc labs and resources labortaroies, so there a key reason for mixing up male and females by floolwing the university standard handbook, just like any other American or international universities. The university will be the greatest opprutinity for the application and carrying state of the art labs and reaserch insitiutions that help saudis, and forginers to gain knoweldge and get applied for all basics courses.

As someone who was there I must say that the ceremony was breathtaking and spectacular- as well as the dining tent that was literally fit for kings.

wow oil money,,, but they dont have the brain to create anything

Some people will just be unhappy with whatever Saudi does..

Faisal, Saudi Arabia

this is an absurd occurence that saudi is allowing both female and male study in the same campus.to say that even where the prophet came from are not practing tne prophet teaching,well may allah forgive us the world is coming to an end.saudi in resent have not showed sopport to islam as a religion so it may not have come as surprise


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