by Joumana al Jabri
Princess Nora bint AbdulRahman University, Saudi Arabia’s first and the world’s largest women’s university, is rising on the outskirts of Riyadh. Ranked as the kingdom’s third largest infrastructural investment at $11.5 billion, the new campus is part of King Abdullah’s efforts to empower women and acknowledge that women make up 58% of the kingdom’s total university student population. The mandate of the new university is to sustain initiatives that increase women’s contribution to the national workforce.* Overshadowed by the opening of headline-grabbing KAUST, this university, with its endowment, size, and aspirations, is poised to challenge KAUST as to which institution will have a greater impact on Saudi Arabia’s future.
Anticipating an eventual enrollment of 40,000 women, the university is rushing to open its doors in 2012 to its 8 million square meter campus. It will house fifteen colleges including medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, naturopathy and foreign languages. Additionally, research facilities for nanotechnology, biosciences and information technology will work in tandem with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the kingdom’s future hub for specialized research centers.
The medical and science departments support a 700-bed campus hospital. The usual campus amenities - a library, mosques and laboratories - will be complemented with a school, a kindergarten and even family amusement centers. The campus will be connected by a high-tech transport system with an automatic metro linking all primary facilities. It also holds around 40,000 square meters of solar paneling that will provide 16% of the campus’ heating and 18% of the power required for air conditioning.
While KAUST is perceived as progressive given its mixed gender and international student body, Princess Nora University is a great contrast with its all-Saudi, female student body. And while a large majority of students at KAUST may leave the country upon graduation, the purpose of Princess Nora University is to bring graduates into the local workforce. It should also be noted that the metro integrated in the university campus is a milestone in addressing a fundamental issue in Saudi Arabia, the law prohibiting women from driving. The hope is that the 40,000 students in one part of the kingdom and KAUST’s 400 students 700 kilometers to the south will be able to exchange and integrate in a country with a high demand for skills, knowledge and, perhaps, moderation.
* Unemployment rate among Saudi women since August 2008 increased by 2% to 26.9% in February 2009. The rate among Saudi men declined to 6.8% during the same period. 78.3% of unemployed women are university graduates. ‘The private sector finds it difficult to employ women under the present social circumstances. The Labor Ministry alone will not be able to solve the unemployment problem’, says deputy labor minister (Arab Business, March 30, 2009).