The opening of Saudi Arabia's new multibillion dollar, first-ever fully integrated coed university on Wednesday is a pivotal step forward in the oil-rich kingdom's quest to strengthen its economic base, said the Oil Minister Ali Naimi.

"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 at the institution's inauguration outside the coastal city of Jeddah in remarks carried by the state press.

The university breaks many of the conservative country's social taboos by allowing, for the first time, men and women to take classes together.

The 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.

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.

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.