September 24, 2009

Saudi Arabia's first coed university - really?

With much publicity and fanfare, Saudi Arabia opened its first coeducational university, the King 'Abdallah Science and Technology University (KAUST). The king declared that the school will be a "beacon of tolerance."

That would be a welcome change in a kingdom that is known for its intolerance of things not Islamic. Hopefully, this is one of the reforms ordered by the monarch earlier this year - see my article, Saudi king orders long overdue reforms.

I was excited when I saw the headline, "Saudi Arabia inaugurates its first coed university." This would represent a major change in attitude toward post-pubescent mixing of the genders. As they say, however, the devil is in the details.

First, the campus is located in a remote seaside location about 50 miles north of the major port city of Jiddah. Jiddah is one of the least conservative areas of the kingdom - conservative, yes, but not nearly as repressive as the more traditional capital of Riyadh. Locating it away from a major metropolitan area keeps it from the public eye. Having men and women - reportedly unveiled - attending the same classes will surely raise eyebrows in the kingdom that houses the two holiest sites in Islam. It is important to note that in Arabic, the king is not referred to as the king, but as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Sites."

Second, the great majority of the students and faculty are foreigners. The initial 800 students are from more than 60 countries - the enrollment is expected to increase to 2000 in the next decade. Of the 800 students enrolled this year, only about 100 are Saudis. It would be interesting to know how many of the Saudi students are women. That little but critical detail was missing from the reporting.

If any of the female students at KAUST are Saudis, that would be an almost revolutionary change. It has not been that many years since women were permitted to attend school, let alone study certain subjects. If they are allowed to sit in the same classroom with men and not be veiled and covered, I will be shocked. I suspect that the female students at this institution will be foreigners.

Saudis are slow to change, especially when it comes to women's rights. Women can work only under strict rules. Most female workers in the Kingdom are foreigners - it's just easier. All of the female flight attendants for Saudia, the national airline, are from other Arab or Muslim countries. I remember being on a Saudia flight from Riyadh to Cairo when one Saudi passenger was irate that the flight attendant, a young Turkish woman, could not speak Arabic.

Third, Saudi curricula in any of its institutions is strictly controlled by the government. Repeated American attempts to convince the Saudi government to change its virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Christian lesson plans have failed. It will be interesting to see if this new institution with its highly-paid foreign faculty actually practices academic freedom. That freedom includes contact with educational institutions around the world, something Saudi schools have up until now prohibited. Since KAUST has a relationship with the University of California (Berkeley), it will be interesting to see if there is a free exchange of ideas.

If the Saudis have changed, it is welcome news. I suspect, however, that this will be an isolated show campus that portends no real change in Saudi academic circles, certainly not in its curricula.