Up the corniche, along a coast where boats carrying pilgrims bound for Mecca sailed for centuries, a thicket of cranes rises over whitewashed mosques along the Red Sea.
Steel flashes and blowtorches glow as 20,000 workers build a $10-billion university ordered up by a king who hopes Western ingenuity will revive the economy of this ultraconservative Muslim nation. When finished next year, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will offer coed classes, Western professors, a curriculum in English and other touches loathed as dangerous liberalism by Islamic fundamentalists.
The West may be dependent on Saudi crude, now as high as $145 a barrel, but this campus outside an ancient fishing village is recognition that the country that is home to Islam's holiest shrines needs the likes of USC, Oxford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to survive globalization.
An architect's rendering shows a campus of canals and reflecting pools running along sleek silver and glass libraries and laboratories. A marina with slips for 140 boats stands in a cove lighted by a tapered beacon. Students and professors will live in villas and apartments looking out on date palms and furnished with eggshell and white Swedish-style sofas and chairs.
Saudis have studied in the U.S. and Europe for decades, bringing back expertise without directly exposing the kingdom to Western classrooms and professors. But the new university is inviting the secular West a step closer in another ideological battle between Saudi reformers led by King Abdullah and the Wahhabi sect of puritanical Islam that has resisted outside influences since the days of desert caravans.
"Saudis are beginning to realize they are not the center of the universe," said Tariq Maeena, a writer and aviation expert. "The king hopes that a young Saudi will be in a class with an American professor. The king is jabbing the conservatives from all sides. He's not doing it with a massive decree, but incrementally, and all the radicals can do is roll their eyes and say, 'Uh-oh, we're losing more power.' "
Amira Kashgary, a literature professor at a women's college, said, "We are part of the global world now. Whether we like it or not, and regardless of our political and religious systems, there are changes seeping through our lives.
"The radicals ran a wicked Internet campaign against the university. They said it is another sign liberals are invading us."
The kingdom's huge oil reserves cannot mask Saudi Arabia's problems: 40% of its population is younger than 18, its schools are backward and its economy is not diverse enough to compete in a high-tech future balanced between the West and the rising powers of China and India.
King Abdullah is building the university, along with six multibillion-dollar Economic Cities, to provide jobs and open the country to global markets. Conservatives fear that these international voices, from South Asian construction workers to Western scientists, will change the religious fabric.
"Men and women learning together should remain forbidden," said Mohammed Ben Yehia Nogeemy, a member of the Saudi Juristic Academy, a religious organization that issues fatwas. He said that such an atmosphere could be regarded as sedition and "if any Saudi official has the intention to allow the establishment of a coeducational university, that will be a big mistake that will need to be corrected."
But the king, for now, is a step ahead of the conservatives. Nogeemy was not in attendance on a recent afternoon when oil money seduced brainpower at a hotel along the Red Sea in Jidda.
Silver trays of hors d'oeuvres and alcohol-free champagne glided through a crowd of Western academics gathered for a conference on the university's goals. Soldiers with Humvees and .50-caliber machine guns stood guard outside to scare away would-be terrorists, while inside mathematicians and molecular biologists tried on blue university ball caps and pocketed Lamborghini pens left on seats as gifts.
The university, known as KAUST, is promising academic freedom, the mixing of cultures and religions, and subjects as varied as nanotechnology and crop development. The country's ubiquitous and often abusive morality police will not patrol the campus, depicted on the university's interactive website with unveiled women. Going unveiled is a crime in Saudi society that could lead to lashings and imprisonment.
KAUST will be "a new house of wisdom," Ali Ibrahim Naimi, the Saudi minister of petroleum and mineral resources, told the guests. He said world research projects and the Saudi economy, with a 12% unemployment rate, would benefit from the "easy flow of ideas and people into and out of the region."
To ensure that, KAUST is not under the jurisdiction of the Education Ministry, which is controlled by fundamentalists and often forbids the teaching of music, art and philosophy.
The project is overseen by Aramco, the Saudi oil company founded by U.S. firms in the 1930s. Aramco has experience in creating a parallel world: In its gated communities in the eastern part of the country, alcohol is available but hidden, there's a pee-wee baseball winter carnival, and Western women drive cars, a practice forbidden to Saudi women.
With a chocolate-scented cigar in one hand and a honey-flavored coffee in the other, Maeena sat in his favorite Jidda cafe, nodding hellos to young men with laptops and waiters who know his preferences. This is the world he likes, a place to write, a den of intellectual freedom in Saudi Arabia's most liberal city.
He said KAUST, which is being built 50 miles north of the cafe, is another sign that the country's religious and ideological barriers are weakening.
"It's an act of opening us up to a better side of education," said Maeena, who, like many of his generation, attended college in the U.S. "The West has planted those seeds of liberalism in me and thousands like me. We were young Saudis educated in the West in the '60s, '70s and '80s, but this slowed as the seeds of fundamentalism took hold here in the 1990s."
The Saud family's alliance with the Wahhabis dates to the 1700s, but the most recent wave of fundamentalism intensified in the 1980s and was fueled by anger over U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, leading to terrorist attacks.
When militants struck in the kingdom after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government began cracking down on Wahhabi religious schools and radical preachers. Abdullah has not moved as swiftly as many reformers would like -- Wahhabis control the courts, and ultraconservative members of the royal family hold key government posts, including the Interior Ministry.
"The king is older and doesn't have a lot of time," said Maeena, a columnist for the Arab News. "Every good Saudi says, 'I pray for the king's long life.' He is our hope. We were a pariah nation after Sept. 11, and he's slowly taking us out of this."
Samar Fatany, a radio commentator, said of the fundamentalists, "They are the ones who want to make us live in the dark ages of camels and caravans and tents."
But conservatives remain powerful. They desire Western scientific and technological advances, but want nothing to do with democracy, women's rights, religious rights and other cultural freedoms that cloud the Wahhabi goal of evoking the centuries-old golden era of Islam.
That vision was less threatened when the students of Maeena's generation went abroad to study. Now, with the new university rising, Nogeemy wants the professors to find separate lives, like the Aramco oil engineers before them.
"I do not fear any creeping Western influence," he said, "because Westerners who come to Saudi Arabia are experts of very high caliber who live in isolated communities where they can maintain their own culture."
Of the university, Nogeemy said, "We can tolerate that a male professor teaches female students. . . . There would not be sedition there. But male and female students should not be together."
After the alcohol-less cocktail party at the hotel in Jidda, the Western academics and their Saudi hosts retired. The slide shows that whirled with DNA-like designs were put away, and Sami M. Angawi, an architect, drove through the streets wondering whether the university would melt into the community or become another gated pocket of Western ideals.
Angawi stopped his car at a hospital he had designed. It was after midnight. The building didn't look like a hospital; one hallway resembled the nave of a cathedral, another opened to a mosque, and another to a courtyard bright with moonlight.
His intent, he said, was to mix different styles into one voice, to allow architectural nuances from one culture to seep into another.
"To just implant a foreign university here will not work," he said. "What do we do with it? Put fences around it? We don't allow it to interact with the rest of Saudi society?
"Do we just want science without culture? Does science grow without culture? You have to have a unity. Without interaction you create polarization, and with that the extreme will grow more extreme."
The sliding doors opened and Angawi stepped from the stone floor back into the night.
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times