Saudi Arabia opened its first co-educational university on Wednesday, a high-tech campus with massive funds which reformers hope will spearhead change in the Islamic state.
Western diplomats hope the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which has attracted more than 70 professors and 800 students from abroad, will usher reform after recent setbacks such as shelving municipal elections planned for this year and cancelling cultural events opposed by clerics.
The 85-year-old monarch has promoted reforms in the world’s top oil exporter since taking office in 2005 to create a modern state, stave off Western criticisms and lower dependence on oil but faces resistance from conservative clerics and princes.
Officials who back Abdullah fear that without reforms young people will be drawn to militancy in the future.
One of the main goals of KAUST, where staff will drive around campus in electric cars, is to produce Saudi scientists.