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The King Abdallah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) will herald a new era in Saudi Arabian higher education. Men and women will study together at this new international, graduate-level research university, a blatant contradiction to the kingdom’s religious limitations to women’s rights and liberal inquiry. The Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia (MOHE), however, does not have a say in this as the project was privately initiated by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and funded by the oil company Aramco. The core campus, located on more than 36 million square meters on the Red Sea, some 80 kms north of Jeddah, will be an isolated learning center, from which Saudi Arabia’s notorious religious police will be banned. It is set to open in September 2009.
The global significance of the project, however, goes well beyond coeducation as such. Research output is comparatively low in Saudi Arabia as science is hindered by religious boundaries. With the economy largely dependent on oil, KAUST is a bold investment to compete with the West in science and technology. The graduate research institution has more than a 10 billion dollar endowment, one of the ten largest in the world.
Whether science and research can flourish internationally in what is still considered a closed society remains to be seen.