There's more to women's liberation in conservative Riyadh than the world's largest only-woman university.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital city, is experiencing a construction boom, and swanky new towers to house people and accommodate trendy offices are sprouting out of the desert sands. The skyline is dotted with yellow clusters of cranes, worked by expatriate blue collar workers to ensure that in the future Riyadh is not short of shopping malls restaurants and expensive glass and steel showrooms. The Ritz Carlton Hotel where a visiting Indian delegation, out on a track-II odyssey, was put up is a massive structure, built lavishly on an area large enough to accommodate a large football stadium. The hotel's gigantic dimensions demonstrate the scale of Saudi Arabia's soaring ambitions, as well as the cornucopia of wealth the country's unending oil reserves have provided to its citizens, especially the ranks of its growing elite.

But there is more to rising Riyadh, than grandeur, style or the unfulfilled psychological need for one-upmanship. Not far from the airport loom the vast outlines of brown structures, enclosed in a campus which runs along thousands of acres. This is the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, the largest women only university in the world. The university, with laboratories, libraries, a hospital and mosques has a mind-boggling capacity to accommodate 50,000 students.

It is here that the kingdom, challenging its ultra-conservative antecedents will provide its students access to subjects as varied and modern as business administration and science. The ambitious project of educating women on an industrial scale, however, has a downside. While the university will churn out educated women in droves, their employability after their graduation will hit the wall of the country's conservative culture. Already, Saudi Arabia's educated work force of women, not small by any standards, is finding it hard to break into jobs that have remained male bastions, reinforced by stereotypes that women's role in society cannot and should not cross the boundaries of domesticity. The bottom line is that reforms, enforced in driblets are unlikely to work. Sooner than later, the changing demands of Saudi Arabia's society, fed increasingly on the internet and quality education, will impose pressures on the country's leadership to evolve a more liberal regime that disallows gender discrimination, especially in the work-place.

More In: Magazine | Features