Saudi Arabia opens first mixed-gender university

Wed Sep 23, 2009 4:57pm EDT
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By Ulf Laessing and Asma Alsharif

THUWAL, Saudi Arabia (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 stimulate reform after recent setbacks such as shelving municipal elections and cancelling cultural events opposed by clerics.

King Abdullah 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 opposing its alliance with the United States. It was mainly Saudis who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. targets.

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

"Undoubtedly, scientific centres that embrace all peoples are the first line of defense against extremists," Abdullah told regional leaders such as Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Abdullah Gul of Turkey, Western officials and Nobel laureates during the inauguration.

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.   Continued...