In Saudi Arabia, a Campus Built as a 'Beacon of Tolerance'

Officials speak to the media during the inauguration last month of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, part of an effort to turn the kingdom into a global scientific center rivaling those in the United States.
Officials speak to the media during the inauguration last month of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, part of an effort to turn the kingdom into a global scientific center rivaling those in the United States. (Scott Nelson - Associated Press)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 9, 2009

THUWAL, Saudi Arabia -- On this gleaming high-tech campus edged by the Red Sea, May Qurashi crossed a barrier the other day. She played a game on PlayStation with some male fellow students. Her best friend, Sarah al-Aqeel, is also reaching for the forbidden. She's getting her driver's license.

Under Saudi Arabia's strict constraints, Saudi women like Qurashi and Aqeel may neither mingle with men nor drive. But at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened last month on this sprawling site 50 miles north of Jiddah, men and women take classes together. Women are not required to wear traditional black head-to-toe abayas or veil their faces -- and they can get behind a steering wheel.

"I don't think religion should have anything to do with higher education," said Qurashi, a 23-year-old biological engineering graduate student.

The research university is the latest, and so far most significant, endeavor by a Persian Gulf nation to diversify its economy and help wean the region from its dependence on oil wealth. Saudi officials describe the multibillion-dollar postgraduate institution as the spear in the kingdom's efforts to transform itself into a global scientific center rivaling those in the United States, Europe and Asia.

But the kingdom's powerful religious establishment is increasingly voicing criticism of the university. On Web sites, clerics have blasted the school's coeducational policy as a violation of sharia, or Islamic law. Last week, a member of the influential Supreme Committee of Islamic Scholars, a government-sanctioned body, called for a probe into the curriculum and its compatibility with sharia law, local newspapers reported.

"Mixing is a great sin and a great evil," Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri was quoted as saying in the al-Watan newspaper. "When men mix with women, their hearts burn, and they will be diverted from their main goal," which he said is "education."

His comments sparked outrage from influential advocates of modernization. "It's the sort of thinking that, if not for the King, would have kept this country wandering the desert on the backs of camels in search of water and pasture," the al-Iqtisadiya newspaper editorialized.

In an unprecedented action, reformist King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz issued a royal decree over the weekend removing Shithri from his post, according to the official Saudi Press Agency and Western diplomats.

Many Saudis and Western analysts view the university as a test of Abdullah's ability to challenge hard-line Islamic clerics and expand freedoms, including rights for women, in the Middle East's most religiously austere country. In a speech last month inaugurating the university, the king, 85, declared that "faith and science cannot compete except in unhealthy souls" and that "scientific centers that embrace all peoples are the first lines of defense against extremists." He said he hoped the university, known as KAUST, would become "a beacon of tolerance."

"I interact a lot with men. We hang out together. We go to classes together," said Qurashi, her moon-shaped face framed by a black abaya. "But I'm a Muslim woman. I want friendship and nothing more. If I can stick to my religion and my normal values, then what's wrong with that?"

Challenging Barriers

Three years ago, Abdullah ordered executives of the Saudi national oil company, Aramco, to build the university, fulfilling a 25-year-old vision. The kingdom was in the midst of an economic crisis, and the monarch realized that his country could no longer rely solely on oil, said Nadhmi al-Nasr, the university's interim vice president and a senior Aramco executive.

Today, the campus is a scientist's dream. It houses one of the world's faster supercomputers. A three-dimensional virtual reality room takes visitors into an archaeological dig or a coral reef. Ultra-high-resolution photography allows the study of mountain rock formations.


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