Work has begun on the construction of a new SR15 billion (US$4 billion) campus for Riyadh Women's University, the first university in Saudi Arabia exclusively for female students. The foundation stone of Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh was laid last month by King Abdullah, whose involvement has created tension in the kingdom.
The project is vast in every way. For a start, the new campus will enable capacity to be doubled to around 40,000 students, twice the number at Oxford University. The women will have 15 academic faculties to choose from on an extensive campus containing, among other things, a 700-bed hospital, housing for university staff, a school, a kindergarten, and a high-tech transport system.
The king's decision to attend the foundation ceremony is seen as a reflection of his personal commitment to expand education in Saudi Arabia, for women as well as men. In the view of a diplomat in the kingdom, the expansion of Riyadh Women's University "represents a significant step forward. Of the total population, 50% are under 25, and the government understands the urgent need to invest in higher education".
King Abdullah's pledge to expand education and career opportunities for women has come in for private criticism from elements in the Wahhabi religious establishment, and even from conservative Muslims inside the vast royal family itself.
But the king has insisted several times in recent public speeches that it is vital for the Saudi population as a whole to be offered the best possible educational opportunities. He has also repeated his commitment to the introduction of broad curriculum reform.
But not all those who support greater access to education for women as part of the reform process believe this is the best way to go about it. Dr Mohammed al-Zulfa, one of the members appointed to the kingdom's Shura (advisory) Council, believes that projects such as the expansion of Riyadh University for Women will merely reinforce existing gender segregation.
"It seems to me that the university will be totally isolated from other academic institutions," Zulfa said. "Much of the intellectual enrichment of university life comes from contact with other establishments."
He also questions whether Saudi Arabia will be able to create enough job opportunities for such a large number of female graduates, given that they will have to be employed in a strictly segregated environment. Yet already women make up 58% of university graduates in the kingdom.
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