In an incredible move forward, the notoriously conservative Saudi Arabia has launched a multi-billion dollar co-ed university.
The new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will not require women to wear veils or cover their faces, and they will be able to mix freely with men.
They will also be allowed to drive, a taboo in a country where women must literally take a back seat to their male drivers, Al Jazeera reported.
Thus the new varsity could signal a softening of hard-line rules.
Breathtaking, spectacular and just amazing. That is how Wednesday's inauguration ceremony was described by a large section of the nearly 3,000 guests that included prominent Saudis, foreign leaders, Nobel laureates, researchers, scientists and journalists, Arab News reported.
"It is fantastic, it reminds me of the images one sees of the inside of some futuristic space station — quite incredible," said well-known journalist Hadi Fakeeh.
Women guests in the audience carried along by the heady atmosphere of excitement and expectation spontaneously broke into traditional ululation, a sign of joy and good will.
Things are indeed improving, it is felt. Agents of the feared Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, for instance, have been banned from entering restaurants to spy on groups or couples who might be disobeying the gender segregation rules, Christian Science Monitor had noted recently.
King Abdullah has promoted reforms since taking office in 2005 to create a modern state, stave off Western criticisms and lower dependence on oil.
But he faces resistance from conservative clerics and princes in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's top oil exporters.
Al Qaeda militants launched a campaign against the state in 2003, blaming the royal family for corruption and opposing its alliance with the United States...
Officials who back Abdullah seem to hope that spread of education could, hopefully, stem the rise of fanatical outfits.
Perhaps the desert kingdom's rulers would like the rest of the world to know their country more as a seat of learning than as a seat of the intolerant Wahabi sect of Islam.