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New Saudi University Opens

A new international research university is being opened by King Abdullah, Wednesday in Saudi Arabia. The king has said his vision for the high-tech institute, named after him, is for it to be a center of learning aimed at bridging cultures. However, there is opposition by hard-liners to the new university.

The new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was constructed in just three years. Where there was once only sea and sand, today stands a high-tech, modern campus. It has been built at Thuwal, facing the Red Sea.

Wednesday is Saudi Arabia's National Day and thousands of guests have been invited to attend the university's opening ceremony. Security is tight, with policemen carrying out checks on all roads leading to the university.

Billions of dollars have been thrown into the new university. Professor Choon Fong Shih - an engineer from Singapore - is the first foreign president of an academic institution in Saudi Arabia. He says nothing has been spared to create an impressive campus.

"We have recruited the very best minds from around the world. We have students from more than 60 countries," he said. "This is truly the beginning of a very exciting academic enterprise.

But this is a country where social rules are very tight. Women are not free to dress as they please and they are taught separately from men.

Siraj Waham, of the English-language Daily Arab News says the idea of a co-educational, liberal campus, where both sexes are able to mingle freely, is not accepted by many conservatives, who want to keep the strict interpretation of Islam.

"There is a lobby, there is a section [of Saudi society] which thinks that by allowing this university, and by allowing co-educational set-up on this university, it will not be good for Saudi society, it will not be good for the country," said Waham.

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.