Saudi Arabia inaugurates its first coed university

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia inaugurated on Wednesday its first-ever fully integrated coed university, and its ruler declared the institution will be a "beacon of tolerance" in a world attacked by extremists.

The multibillion dollar King Abdullah Science and Technology University, or KAUST, boasts state-of-the-art labs, the world's 14th fastest supercomputer and one of the biggest endowments worldwide. It breaks many of the conservative country's social taboos by allowing, for the first time, men and women to take classes together.

Saudi officials have envisaged the postgraduate institution as a key part of the kingdom's plans to transform itself into a global scientific hub — its latest efforts to diversify its oil-reliant economy.

Saudi royals and dignitaries attended the inauguration ceremony outside the coastal city of Jeddah, where the university is located.

"Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists, who speak the language of hatred," King Abdullah said at the inauguration. "Undoubtedly, scientific centers that embrace all peoples are the first line of defense against extremists. And today this university will become a house of wisdom ... a beacon of tolerance."

Oil Minister Ali Naimi hailed the university's opening as a pivotal step forward in the oil-rich kingdom's quest to strengthen its economic base.

"With all the natural resources that God has endowed us, the kingdom is keen to diversify its sources of income for the future," Naimi said in remarks carried by state media.

So far 817 students representing 61 different countries are currently enrolled, with 314 beginning classes this month while the rest are scheduled to start in the beginning of 2010. The aim is to expand to 2,000 students within eight to 10 years.

Of that total, 15 percent are Saudi, say university officials.

The university's financial backing will allow all the students to receive full scholarships covering their tuition plus a stipend.

Naimi said environmental research will be a priority at the university where more than 70 international faculty are on board. In a bid to recruit distinguished researchers, KAUST has tossed generous salary packages to prospective hires from around the world.

The university is being launched at a time when the OPEC powerhouse has been upping its push to focus on education and development programs aimed at boosting economic growth.

Officials say KAUST's embrace of scientific freedom marks Saudi Arabia's determination to not be left behind as technology increasingly drives global development.

The hope is that KAUST will succeed in promoting scientific freedom in a country where strict implementation of Islamic teachings has often been blamed for stifling innovation.

A baby crocodile swims at the Budapest Zoo. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh