Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz inaugurated on Sunday the world's largest women's university, spread over eight million square meters (20,000 acres) and costing over 20 billion riyals ($5.3 billion) to build. But many women are asking where the skills they acquire are going to be put to use.

Expected to host up to 40,000 students, the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University in the outskirts of the capital Riyadh will have enough places in its first year classes for 60% of all the kingdom’s female high school graduates. "The King realizes his Dream, Inaugurating the Gate of Knowledge for the Saudi Woman," the Saudi daily Al-Watan ceremoniously announced in its headline Monday.

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But the transition from education to employment is particularly hard for Saudi women, who comprise 58% of the kingdom's student body but only 14.4% of its national labor force. The figures for female employment are dramatically lower than in the West but low even compared with neighboring Gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (59%), Kuwait (42.5%) and Qatar (36.4%). 

Fawzia Al-Bakr, an education professor at the King Saud University in Riyadh, said the new university and its 15 departments will open educational fields previously limited to Saudi women, such as computer science, business and nursing. She said that although the new university will probably have no trouble filling its benches with eager students, finding employment will be a challenge for the women.

"Saudi Arabia has a young population and [female] employment is a big problem that the educational institutions will not be able to solve," she told The Media Line. "It is a social, cultural and systemic problem, but education should be provided to everyone, independent of job opportunities."

King Abdullah has been steering a difficult route between liberals, of whom he is believed to be one, and the dominant conservative faction of the country’s religious establishment. Liberalism in Saudi Arabia reached its zenith in February 2009, with the appointment of Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first woman to ever hold a ministerial post in the kingdom.

But some experts say it had been in decline ever since. Saudi women are banned from driving a car or leaving the house unaccompanied by a male guardian. The most recent blow they received came on March 28 when the government announced that women wouldn’t be allowed to vote in the municipal elections. The elections, the second ever held in the kingdom's history, had been postponed from 2009 under the pretext that more time was needed to enable women to vote. 

Even Abdullah, in his opening speech, emphasized the role of the Saudi woman first as a mother than as a bread-winner. "[The Saudi woman] is a loving mother, a constructive citizen and a diligent employee," he said.
            
Rima Al-Mukhtar, a journalist with the Jedda-based English language daily Arab News, said she is confident that female graduates of the new university will find work in the kingdom if they acquired skills needed in the job market. She said that large Saudi universities have separate male and female campuses, but the new Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University is unique in that it served only women. 

"It's like any other country," Al-Mukhtar told The Media Line. "When you have English or computer skills, it's easier to find a job."

Al-Mukhtar said she had no problem finding work in journalism immediately after graduation, adding that men and women sat in separate offices in her workplace, but occasionally mixed in morning meetings. She said that both men and women were free to report about all issues. 

But Al-Mukhtar seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Saudi women tend to specialize in the fields of health and education; with 85% working in education and 6% in public health. Some 95% of Saudi women are employed in the public sector.

Eman Al-Nafjan, a blogger and English teacher living in Riyadh, said women in the kingdom have long bemoaned the inadequate teaching facilities. She said the new state-of-the-art campus, where a mono-rail connects the university buildings, was a welcome introduction to the country's educational scene. She added, however, that even when employed Saudi women will face discrimination in the workplace.

"Even in the health and education sectors where women are employed there's a glass ceiling," she told The Media Line.

Al-Nafjan said Saudi women often opted for higher education because they can’t find a job after high school, not because they expect to have careers. Religious conservatives aren’t threatened by the new university because it doesn’t violate two fundamental principals Saudi men held dear -- gender-segregated education and the ban on women driving.

Female teachers can never teach male students, Al-Nafjan said, adding that most humanities faculties in Saudi Arabia employ a closed-circuit TV system where male lecturers can teach women without seeing them. She said female education should be valued even if it is not followed by employment.

"The more educated women are, the more they'll push for change." 
   
 Tanya Sayagh contributed to this report.

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