Powerful Cleric Slams Saudi Arabia Coed University

A prominent Muslim cleric has criticized a new Saudi university launched by King Abdullah for allowing men and women to take classes together.

Sheik Saad Bin Naser al-Shethri, who is a member of the powerful government-sanctioned Supreme Committee of (Islamic) Scholars, was quoted Wednesday in the Al-Watan daily as demanding an end to coed classes at the newly opened King Abdullah Science and Technology University.

"Mixing is a great sin and a great evil," al-Shethri was quoted as saying. "When men mix with women, their hearts burn and they will be diverted from their main goal (which is) ... education."

Al-Shethri's comments indicate there may be significant opposition to the country's first fully integrated coed university among the kingdom's powerful religious establishment.

The multibillion dollar postgraduate institution, which officially opened its doors to students last week, has been touted by King Abdullah as a "beacon of tolerance." The school boasts state-of-the-art labs, the world's 14th fastest supercomputer and one of the biggest endowments worldwide.

Saudi officials have envisaged the university 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.

Al-Watan, which is owned by members of the royal family, accused al-Shethri of trying to undermine Abdullah's reforms and suggested such criticism breeds terrorism.

"This is what Al Qaeda awaits as a pretext and justification" for its actions, the paper's editor-in-chief, Jamal Kashukshi, said in an editorial.

Another pro-government daily, Al-Riyadh, also rejected al-Shethri's comments, describing them as "a creed which puts us behind the rest of the Muslim world."

More than 800 students from 61 different countries have enrolled at the school so far. The university aims to expand to around 2,000 students within eight to 10 years.

Of that total, 15 percent will be Saudi, university officials have said.

The Saudi government hopes that the school will succeed in promoting scientific freedom in a country where strict implementation of Islamic teachings has often been blamed for stifling innovation.

Abdullah has encouraged reforms in the oil-rich kingdom since becoming crown prince in 1982, and has intensified his efforts since assuming the thrown upon the death of his half brother, King Fahad, in 2005.