Visitors to Riyadh pass, on their way from the airport, one of the great engineering projects of our time. Most will have noticed in the past two years a gigantic building site to the west of the fast road to the capital, but few will have known what it was – or its immense social implications.

The PNU is the largest university built from scratch in history. Covering 2.8 million square metres, the university and its campus will be big enough to accommodate 40,000 students and 12,000 employees. This will automatically give it a capacity larger than any other Saudi educational institution after Riyadh’s King Saud University.

The PNU is the largest university built from scratch in history

The university is also being built faster than any equivalent. Designs were completed in 345 days. The time taken to build the university is expected to be almost exactly two years. To make this happen, 148 cranes and 40,000 construction workers were deployed.

A trail is also being blazed by the PNU for sustainable buildings in Saudi Arabia. A total of 38 of its buildings, with a combined built-up area of 1 million sq m, are aiming to secure a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (Leed) green building rating. The PNU library, which will be one of the largest in the world with 4.5 million books, is going for Leed Gold, the second-highest rating.

Yet the most remarkable characteristic of the planned institution is that it will be for women only. The result of three-years’ fast-track work will be the largest educational institution in history dedicated exclusively to women. It may even by the largest women-only institution of any kind.

The objective is to create an environment in which female Saudi students, most aged 18-22, will be entirely segregated from men. The academic staff in contact with students will be female. Male service workers will be largely invisible as the main maintenance areas will be located in the university’s podium level. The main campus buildings will be built on top of this, above ground level and linked by monorail that spans the whole university.

This will allow the students to set aside their abayas and other forms of dress mandated for women appearing in public by the approach to sharia favoured in Saudi Arabia. The creation of a women-only institution will also address the objections to educating girls at university expressed by Saudi families. All the kingdom’s universities are in Saudi Arabia’s big cities – the PNU will be the third in Riyadh alone – but about one third of the population of the kingdom lives elsewhere. Young women from the provinces wishing to study for a degree are obliged to leave their families and live in student campuses where gender separation is strictly applied, but where men also study and teach.

By this standard alone, the PNU is a remarkable innovation that is evidence of the extraordinary journey Saudi Arabia is making. Little more than 50 years ago, there was not a single public school for girls in the kingdom. Today, Saudi Arabian women are bettering their male counterparts in practically every subject. The PNU is addressing a huge, pent-up desire for learning that must in due course alter the way most Saudi Arabians view the world and themselves.

Little more than 50 years ago, there was not a single public school for girls in the kingdom

The scale of the PNU is radical by any standards. Western feminists argued in the 1970s that it was impossible for women to flourish within existing social structures. At their most extreme, they favoured gender separation in education and work. This approach was rejected as impractical and, possibly, inhumane. Paradoxically, it has emerged in a different form in contemporary Saudi Arabia.

The PNU will produce extraordinary results. Feminists hope the PNU will nurture Nobel prizewinners, but it is as likely that PNU graduates will emerge – after four years in an environment allowing freedom of expression impossible elsewhere in the kingdom – unwilling to accept the Saudi status quo.

This future centre of learning expresses the divisions within Saudi society at the start of the 21st century. Irrevocably committed to rapid modernisation, Saudi Arabia nevertheless remains inextricably attached to the traditions of the recent past. These include the restrictions educated Saudi women face, of which the ban on driving is just the most egregious example.

The PNU solution is to separate the genders. It may work, but the project presents a dismal vision of the future. If the only way Saudi women can secure an education is to enclose them within a walled settlement the size of a small town, what does that imply for the future? The logic behind the PNU might suggest that Saudi Arabia as a whole should be divided in two, with one half for men and the other half for women.

Saudi Arabia nevertheless remains inextricably attached to the traditions of the recent past

Saudi Arabia is not alone in struggling with the challenges presented by the rapid advance of women’s achievements in education and at work. No society has found the perfect solution to the tendency for consequent gender dysfunction.

The PNU constitutes a massive step forward for Saudi Arabia that will allow Saudi women to achieve at least part of their untapped potential. Whether it should be a blueprint for the future of gender relations in Arabia and the wider Islamic world should be questioned, not least by those it is intended to serve.