Beyond the Burg: Debate rages as Saudi Arabia opens university

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November 20, 2009

4:23 AM

The first 400 students and 74 faculty members commenced studies at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology located in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia in September.

The $10 billion campus represents King Abdullah’s desire for a research-center and university on par with global standards.

However, several issues have hit home in the creation of the university in a country that is often known for its poor performance in education.

The creation of a progressive, liberal arts university in a country that prides itself on tradition has created a considerable amount of controversy within Saudi Arabia.

The campus will eventually house 20,000 individuals. There will be a golf course, yacht club, the only movie theater permitted in the kingdom and a town center with restaurants and shops.

There will not be rules against men and women working, studying and socializing together.

On campus, women are not required to wear the abaya, the black gown mandatory elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

Criticism has already been aimed at the university as Sheik Saad al-Shathry of the Saudi Council for Senior Scholars called for the creation of a religious committee to ensure that the university’s curriculum was consistent with Islam. However, the king responded by firing Shathry from the council.

“We have a leader who is willing to take the furthest step, but is it a policy of the country or just the leader?” Awadh al-Badi, a Saudi political scientist, said.

The king is 85-years-old with the next in line being the interior minister, Prince Naif, whose political base is Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious community.

“Those voices calling for opening up are strange voices that do not represent public opinion,” Saudi preacher Soliman al-Duwaish told the New York Times.

According to the newspaper, the university has opened in an environment that has proven hostile to its goals and policies.

In accordance with the King’s wishes, Saudi Arabia as a country has made a clear effort to become much more like the west. However, efforts have often met a “brick wall” of sorts as traditionalists oppose those actions.

The New York Times also reports that the university itself is facing a problem as the country’s source of pride and revenue has turned into a debate of tradition and science.

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