Saudi Arabia: First Coed University Unveiled

On Wednesday the conservative country unveiled its first ever fully coed university, the King Abdullah Science and Technology University (KAUST). In the past, women in the notoriously gender restrictive kingdom were only allowed to take classes separately from men.

The inauguration of KAUST is meant to signal two important developments: a lauded, if politically volatile, softening of hard-line rules, and the kingdom’s rising ambitions of being a hub of scientific learning. Both aims, Saudi Arabia’s rulers hope, will help blunt the impact of extremism.

The university’s lavish inauguration on Wednesday met with glowing praise, Christian Science Monitor reports.
Many of the women students and staff still choose to wear the abaja, the kingdom's traditional long black dress that covers them from head to toe. But they insist that, on this campus, they are free to dress as they please.
Basma Parker is a librarian at KAUST - King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

"It's a campus," said Parker. "You can do whatever you want in here. And, it's been told before that it's a campus. Ladies can drive. They can work. They can do whatever they want. It's their choice if they want to come here.

Three-hundred-50 students - 15 percent of them women - have begun their classes this September. The plan is to reach a student body of 2,000, in the next decade. Reformists hope that KAUST will not remain an oasis of freedom and that, in time, the culture of fewer restrictions will spill outside the campus gates and into Saudi cities, Voice of America reports.

The university's financial backing will allow all the students to receive full scholarships covering their tuition plus a stipend.

Naimi said environmental research will be a priority at the university where more than 70 international faculty are on board. In a bid to recruit distinguished researchers, KAUST has tossed generous salary packages to prospective hires from around the world.

The university is being launched at a time when the OPEC powerhouse has been upping its push to focus on education and development programs aimed at boosting economic growth, The Associated Press reports.