Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Wednesday, 23 September 2009 16:52 UK

Saudis open hi-tech science oasis

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
It took just two years to build the campus

A multi-billion dollar university has opened in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to enable the country to compete in science and technology internationally.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology near Jeddah boasts one of the world's fastest supercomputers.

Saudi authorities hope the mixed-sex centre it will help modernise the kingdom's deeply conservative society.

The religious police will not operate on-site. Women will be allowed to mix freely with men and drive on campus.

Sebastian Usher, BBC's Arab Regional Editor

Saudi Arabia has never had any problem in paying foreigners enough to bring them into the country.

But they almost all live in a different dimension from Saudi citizens - much of the time they might as well be on another planet for all the involvement they have in Saudi life.

The aim is for things to be different with this university. The Saudi elite behind it hope it will become an organic part of their society, acting as a beacon of academic excellence in an educational landscape still dominated by religious and rote learning.

It is also a symbol of the division in Saudi Arabia between modernisers and traditionalists - a fundamental problem that has often been patched over with lashings of cash but never as yet successfully resolved.

Women will also not be required to wear veils in the coeducational classes.

This is in contrast to the wider country where a strict Wahhabi branch of Islam is practised and women are completely segregated.

The university's new president Professor Choon Fong Shih described the university as the opportunity of a generation.

"We give our academics the full freedom to pursue exceptional science. We fund them to work together in groups - men and women - to work on big ideas that will make a big impact," he said.

Similar efforts at promoting modern institutions have had mixed success in the past.

Some Saudis are concerned the university will become an international bubble which will operate in another dimension to the rest of the country.

Similar accusations have been directed at other institutions where there is a concentration of foreign nationals such as the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

The university is full of modern hardware worth around $1.5bn including three-dimensional imaging facilities.

Classes will be taught in English at the campus 80km (50 miles) north of Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea.

Security concerns

It took just two years to construct the site from scratch on a 36km stretch of desert.

The university has drawn scientists and students from more than 60 countries.

About 15% of the incoming students are female, all of whom have studied at universities outside the kingdom.

It is alleged there are some limits on men and women socialising, with reports that male students are banned from entering women's residences.

King Abdullah has promoted reforms since taking office in 2005, aiming to stave off Western criticism and reduce dependence on oil revenue.

In the former effort, he faces resistance from conservative clerics and princes.

Hardline clerics have been battling loose enforcement of segregation laws in other foreign compounds.

In June, the religious police cracked down on a limited-access resort, not far from the university, where women had been seen driving.

Security is expected to be high for the opening ceremony, a day after al-Qaeda's Yemen branch issued a new threat against Saudi Arabia.

Last month, a suicide bomber tried to kill Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

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