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(New York) - The opening today of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thulwa, Saudi Arabia, will test whether the kingdom is prepared to expand academic freedoms and women's rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

KAUST, intended as an elite graduate research university with partnerships with leading foreign universities and academics, states on its website that its vision and mission are to "uphold the highest standards of moral, ethical, and professional conduct."

"The question is whether KAUST will live up to its apparent commitments to freedom and to gender equality," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "It remains to be seen whether the university will be an island of freedom in an ocean of repression, or whether it can help spread freedoms to other parts of the kingdom."

The Saudi government muzzles free expression and obliges women, who are strictly segregated from men, to seek male approval for all major decisions in life. The new university, on the other hand, has said it will protect academic standards, and it has been widely reported that its classes will be coeducational.

That has not been true for Saudi universities so far, though. A circular to all university presidents in March from the Ministry of Higher Education prohibits education officials, which include academics, from "any direct communication with foreign parties or cooperation with diplomatic missions or international organizations in the kingdom."

The message seems clear in light of King Abdullah's orders in November 2006 to all government ministries and entities to take the "necessary measures" against any government employee who "oppos[es] policies or programs of the state." Such opposition was said to include "direct or indirect participation in preparing any joint statement or memorandum or letter or by signing any of them, or through participation in any dialogue through the media or domestic or foreign communication, or participation in any meetings, or hiding such participation, whose aim is to oppose said policies or programs."

Women in Saudi Arabia also face severe restrictions. They are strictly segregated in public life, including in state universities, must wear a full veil in public, and need approval of a male guardian to work, study, marry, travel, and even receive a passport or a national identification card. Saudi women who win scholarships to study abroad have been told they must be accompanied by a male guardian, which has led female students to conclude "travel" marriages of convenience to pursue their studies. Male and female students in Saudi Arabia are taught separately, with male professors addressing female students via videolink. Religious police each day arrest men and women for "illegal mingling."

The Ministry of Higher Education's website refers to KAUST as an "independent" university. Its board of trustees includes three Saudi princes and two Saudi ministers. Classes and campus life are reported, however, not to be segregated by sex.

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