Divisions among senior Saudi clerics over the legality of gender segregation could mark a new drive by reformers allied to King Abdullah to push social reforms in the puritanical Islamic state.
The divisions came to the open when the kingdom's morals police, or the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, reversed a decision to sack Ahmad al-Ghamdi, its regional head for the Mecca region.
Saudi analysts and diplomats say the reversal was dictated by King Abdullah's entourage if not the king himself.
After the kingdom opened its first co-ed university in September -- a project sponsored by King Abdullah -- Ghamdi published a research paper that questioned the legality in Islam of gender segregation as enforced by the Commission.
"The commission was forced to cancel the decision to sack Ghamdi. This will strengthen the state's role," said Khaled al-Dakhil, a prominent Saudi political writer.
"The state has been gaining influence while that of the religious establishment has been declining, simply because it has gradually been given a lesser say over decisions taken by the state," he said.
This is an interesting side-effect of KAUST. I hope this is just the beginning - and a tolerance and respect for other ideas and religions may also expand beyond the confines of this university island. Listen to the NPR story here and read the Reuters article here. In the mean time, here is a Flyover trip of KAUST - and I would indeed love to visit the campus: