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

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.

Research centers focus on vital areas such as finding alternative forms of energy and sources of potable water. Solar energy partially powers the campus; electric vehicles provide public transport. Fortune 500 companies such as Dow Chemical fund research. The goal, university officials said, is to effectively collaborate with industry to create a new generation of researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs.

"We'll be exporting electricity to Europe and Asia one day," Nasr said.

There are 71 professors, many from the United States, and 817 students from 61 countries. Nearly 400 students began classes last month; the rest will arrive next year. Saudi students, including 20 women, make up 15 percent of the student body.

To attract top scientists and postgraduate students, the university -- which is run by an independent board of trustees -- offered generous tax-free salaries, large houses, a golf course and a yacht club. They also set out to overcome the country's societal restrictions.

Ahmad al-Khowaiter, the interim vice president for economic development and an Aramco executive, said that the intention was not "to break social boundaries." Nevertheless, interviews conducted on the campus over three days suggest that many students and faculty members hope to contribute to a broadening of academic freedom and women's rights in the country.

One workshop held on campus recently explored the challenges facing Saudi women in the higher educational system. A higher percentage of Saudi women than men graduate from college with a degree. But they are restricted to attending all-female institutions, and social and cultural barriers stop many from entering scientific research and other postgraduate programs. They are often directed to the study of humanities and the arts -- science is viewed as a "male" profession -- and are expected to raise families. After graduation, they have trouble finding good jobs, and women in leadership roles are rare in companies, universities and government.

Nasr told the mostly female audience that the university wants to ensure that female academics are among its leaders. "I hope in my lifetime I will see a Saudi female become president of KAUST," he said.

The audience, which included Qurashi and Aqeel, exploded with applause.

Jasmeen Merzaban, a biochemistry professor and one of five women on the faculty, said she hoped the university will help change perceptions of women. "We have the knowledge and power that we can move forward and be just as good as our male colleagues," she said.

But on many Saudi Web sites and chat rooms, the reaction is mixed. A video posted on YouTube shows a Saudi KAUST employee in white tribal garments gyrating his hips on a table after the university's inauguration, as men and women cheer and dance along. By Thursday, the video had been viewed more than 67,000 times and drawn 129 comments.

"God have mercy on the employee. He wasn't raised properly. He should be punished," wrote one person.

"The purest place on earth is not segregated, and that is the holy mosque in Mecca," a university supporter responded.

Some question whether the Saudi educational system will modernize and improve enough to funnel more qualified students to the university -- or whether KAUST will remain mostly a facility for foreigners.

"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," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Choosing Lines to Cross

Not everyone in Aqeel's family supports her decision to study in a coed environment. Two brothers, she said, advised her parents to order her to veil her face on campus -- as she does when she walks with them.

She refused. "I'm not doing anything wrong," she said with a newfound boldness.

Now she eats lunch and dinner with her male classmates. She studies with them. A Canadian male classmate is teaching her how to play the piano. But when she goes to parties, she doesn't dance.

"We have red lines we shouldn't cross," she said.