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Saudi Arabia launches first mixed-gender university

THUWAL, Saudi Arabia, Sept 23 (Reuters) - 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.

King Abdullah was due to inaugurate late on Wednesday the university 80 kilometres north of Jeddah in the presence of regional leaders, Western officials and Nobel laureates.

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.

Al Qaeda militants launched a campaign against the state in 2003, blaming the royal family for corruption and its alliance with the United States. It was mainly Saudis who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against U.S. cities.

Officials who back Abdullah fear that without reforms young people will be drawn to militancy in the future.

Supporters are presenting KAUST as a tangible gain for the king's plans, which have included more long-term projects such as an overhaul of courts, the education system and building "economic cities" to create jobs for the young population.

"KAUST is eventually some tangible result after so much was planned and so little done," said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

"There is truly no other university in the world so well-equipped. Anywhere. The issue is, of course, what is to be done with the equipment and that remains to be seen," former U.S. diplomat John Burgess wrote in his Saudi blog "Crossroads Arabia."

One of the main goals of KAUST, where staff will drive around campus in electric cars, is to produce Saudi scientists but so far locals, who had to compete in a tough admission process, are a minority among students from 61 countries.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

Located next to the Red Sea village of Thuwal, the 36-square mile campus has lured scientists from abroad with luxury packages and a life far from the reality of the Islamic state where clerics have wide powers over society in an alliance with the Saudi ruling family.

"The community's design facilitates access to the Red Sea and encourages active, healthy living and group interaction," says the KAUST website. Unlike in Saudi universities, male and women students can attend classes together and mix in cafes.

With more than 70 green spaces, gyms, wellness, clinics and spacious residential districts there is no reason to leave the campus based far away from prying eyes of the religious police.

"One of the motivations (to come here) was that ... anything that I would dream of is here," said India's Kultaransingh Hooghan, a computer researcher who just relocated to Thuwal.

KAUST is run by state oil company Aramco, which has a similar liberal enclave at its headquarters in Dhahran on the Gulf coast. It is outside the control of the education ministry.

Columnist Abdullah al-Alami, who worked at Aramco, said more Saudis must enrol to make KAUST a success.

"Remember that when Aramco was established the percentage of Saudis was less than 5 percent. Today, Saudi employees make up more than 90 percent of Aramco population," he said.

But analysts and diplomats say Saudi Arabia needs reform of its state education system.

"KAUST is impressive but starts at the wrong end. Instead of pumping billions into universities you need to reform primary schools focusing on religion," said another Western diplomat.

Editing by Andrew Hammond and Samia Nakhoul

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