Ambitious New University Opens In Saudi Arabia

With a $10 billion endowment, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is one of the wealthiest universities in the world. The idea is to foster research that will diversify Saudi Arabia's oil-dependent economy, and to be an oasis of freedom in a highly-controlled society.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As Americans think about their Afghan strategies, Saudi Arabia is thinking about its own future and about the way Saudis think. It's opened a brand new university, already one of the wealthiest in the world. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, known as KAUST, has an endowment of $10 billion. It's trying to be an oasis of academic freedom in a very traditional society.

Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS: The university opened to great fanfare in late September.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

MCEVERS: Fireworks and a laser light show proclaimed a new era of scientific research here in a region where students routinely score below the international average in math and science.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

MCEVERS: Arab heads of state joined Saudi King Abdullah to congratulate him on his pet project, a graduate level institution that will research how to harness solar power, desalinate water and genetically alter plants to survive in the harsh desert. The hope is to create millions of jobs for an exploding population and to help modernize Saudi society by going coed which, until now, was strictly forbidden.

King ABDULLAH BIN ABDUL AZIZ AL SAUD (Saudi Arabia): (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists, the king said at the ceremony. Scientific centers that embrace all people are the first line of defense against these extremists. The next day, Saudi newspapers lavished praise on the king. But then one Islamic TV channel featured a popular cleric on a call-in show.

(Soundbite of TV talk show)

MCEVERS: When asked about KAUST, Sheikh Saad al Shethri said men and women studying together is unacceptable. And, he said, religious scholars should review the university's curriculum to avoid what he called irregular and alien ideologies, like evolution. His comments sparked a harsh debate between reformers and religious conservatives. Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of a reformist newspaper, wrote an editorial accusing al-Shethri and his followers of trying to sabotage the opening of KAUST.

Mr. JAMAL KHASHOGGI (Newspaper Editor): They're afraid of progress. They are afraid of what they see behind KAUST. They see a cynical plan to secularize Saudi Arabia, which doesn't exist. And they are afraid.

MCEVERS: In the end, the sheikh was fired from his position on a council of religious scholars who advise the king. But since then, he has become a hero of sorts among conservatives. He was able to keep his teaching job at a leading Islamic university, and the reformers seemed to have backed down a bit.

I'm standing outside the main gate of the KAUST campus right now. The architecture is stunning. It's unlike anything you would see in conservative Saudi Arabia. It's more like flashy Dubai, modern shapes coming out of the desert. The government invited scores of journalists to come and write about the opening of this institution, but now, since the controversy, the campus is totally off limits to journalists and outsiders. Officials say they don't want anything to interfere with the academic activity of the school.

Either way, the people at KAUST say they're thrilled to be part of the project. Leading scientists from around the world have come on five-year contracts with annual research budgets between four and $800,000. To lure the first class of 375 students - the majority of whom are from Saudi Arabia, China and Mexico -KAUST paid their final year of undergraduate studies and offers full tuition, plus a stipend now.

Nathan Ball graduated from Texas A&M and is here to study bioengineering. He blogs about experiences at KAUST, like the recent student elections. He says he knows Saudi Arabia is watching KAUST to see if such ideas can work in the larger society.

Mr. NATHAN BALL (Student, KAUST): It's been really interesting to have men and women sitting in the same classrooms, because we have women who are very traditional and they wear the full abaya and even the face cover, and they're comfortable with that. And then we have women from the United States or from a more Western culture who are dressing semi-conservatively with long pants and shirts that cover adequately, but everybody's comfortable in their own dress and in their own culture.

MCEVERS: Like another student said: That's how it is in big companies in real life. And, he says, that's how it could be in Saudi Arabia.

For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Riyadh.

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