Qatar: An oasis of learning in the desert

With the vast wealth that comes from its natural gas reserves, Qatar is building an elite education centre by inviting in five top American universities – and the British are nowhere to be seen
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The Independent Online

It was amazingly lavish but erring - just - on the right side of bling. No, this wasn't Paris Hilton graduating from the University of Southern California but 122 young people receiving their newly-minted degrees on a 2,500-acre piece of sand in Qatar on the Arabian Gulf.

Nothing too extraordinary in that, you might think. But you would be wrong. What has been created in this barren country, with a tiny population and a huge income from natural gas, is nothing less than awesome. No expense was spared at last week's graduation ceremony held in the majestic ceremonial court at Education City, all white marble and reflecting pools and Muslim architecture.

The Royal Philarmonic Orchestra had been flown in from London to serenade us with Rossini and Mozart. Fake grass was spread around the campus where the real stuff had failed to be coaxed into life. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was invited as honoured guest. And the students, many of them women, dressed in voluminous gowns and mortar boards over their hijabs, processed through a glittering door built specially low so that they had to bow their heads, a reminder to them to be humble and grateful for the wonderful opportunities they were receiving.

"You have been given an opportunity that might be one of the most important and precious in your life – knowledge and education at its best, according to the highest quality standards," said Dr Abdullah Al-Thani, vice-president of education at Qatar Foundation and an engineering graduate of Colorado State and Southampton Universities.

Rising from the sand of the Arabian desert is an elite educational facility housing five of America's best universities. All last week's graduates were educated at either Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon or Virginia Commonwealth Universities.

Northwestern University opens its journalism school in Qatar in autumn 2008. These universities, all of which are in the premier league apart from Virginia Commonwealth – a perfectly respectable state university in Virginia – have been invited to set up campuses in Education City.

The Qataris are now looking to establish a law school, but are tight-lipped about whom they are talking to. You can bet your bottom dollar it will be a top American university. After that, they are turning their attention to establishing an executive education centre, offering training in management.

No British university has come, a sign perhaps that this Gulf state has had enough of its colonial master. Questioned about this, Dr Ibrahim Ibrahim, an adviser to the Emir, says that, like Stanford and Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge Universities have declined to take part. Imperial College London and the Royal Society will be involved in research only at Education City.

According to Dr Al-Thani, European universities are slower in decision-making than their American counterparts, which is why they are not part of the action. "We think that American institutions are more detached from government," he says.

Whatever the reason, the British are missing a chance to be part of what is expected to become the education hub for the Middle East, if not for the Asian sub-continent. They will thereby fail to influence the next generation of leaders in this part of the world, a fact that will not have escaped the higher education Minister Bill Rammell when he visited Qatar recently.

There may have been little anyone could do about this. The corporate life of the Gulf leans heavily towards the USA and the Americans used the tiny country as their command headquarters before the 2003 Gulf War. So, to have expected the British to have gained a slice of the educational action might have been unrealistic.

Behind all this lies the glamorous figure of Sheikha Mozah, the Emir's wife, who is passionate about the importance of a university education for her people. The rationale for it is hard-headed. Qatar is immensely wealthy by virtue of having the third-largest gas reserves in the world after Russia and Iran. What happens when the gas runs out, or the demand for it declines?

The investment in education is a canny attempt to create an economy that can survive the end of gas. Like Tony Blair, the ruling family of Qatar sees education as the answer. By educating their citizens as well as possible and nurturing research and start-up companies, just as has been done in Silicon Valley, Qatar hopes to produce a society that can live on its wits.

"They have realised that oil and gas wealth, enormous as it is, was going to be a temporary window of opportunity," says Robert Baxter, director of public relations at the Qatar Foundation. "To create something sustainable out of it, you need to invest in the capabilities of the people, which is the true asset in the end. Education was the way to bring it out and make it relevant."

And so vast sums have been invested in Education City, though no one will say how much. The best international architects have been hired to design the buildings that are appearing out of the desert. The site will contain an enormous science and technology park, which is already partly let to companies such as Shell, as well as a golf course (presumably an enticement for Americans) and riding stables.

The Qataris are not neglecting school education because they understand that higher education requires students who are well prepared and with open, inquiring minds. Schooling in this tiny Gulf state has been dominated by rote learning until now. So, the Qatar Foundation created an English-language, fee-paying school, offering the International Baccalaureate. This has become immensely popular and a second school is being opened.

There is also a leadership academy to motivate teenage boys, a learning centre for children with difficulties and an Academic Bridge programme for the very able.

The education at the American universities is exactly the same as would be given to US students, the organisers insist. The entry standards are the same, as are the degree standards.

The intention is to maintain Education City as elite as possible, according to Dr Al-Thani. "For higher education, we would like to keep this as a small, quality programme," he says. "I don't see it going over 3,000 students in the next 10 years."

Students are given a range of financial help on the American model. All Qataris are educated free. The others can borrow money from the government, which they repay later. Girls are visible, reflecting their position in Qatari society. Despite being an obviously Muslim society, Qatar is liberal in its attitudes towards women who appear to be given more freedom than in some other Middle Eastern states.

So, female students are very much in evidence, wearing a range of Muslim and non-Muslim garb, mostly without veils. Many, indeed, are stylish and fashion-conscious, and confident in speaking publicly as Westerners. The graduates of Education City are all fluent in English and most have American accents, presumably reflecting their schooling and their membership of the international jetset.

All the students I spoke to said they worked very hard, putting in six or seven hours a day on top of their classes. They live at home, have no night life on the UK model and are required to spend time with their family every evening. If they stay up late, they are usually studying, and, for something special, they order in a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal.

"We don't feel like we need something else or that we're missing out on a nightlife," said one student.

If all this sounds too good to be true, it is worth remembering that drinking alcohol is illegal in Qatar. The only bars are in tourist hotels. Education City has no bars or nightclubs. There are plans to build 600 to 700 rooms in halls of residence for overseas students on campus and to create a sports centre and a student centre containing a cinema, meeting rooms and a food court, according to Dr Al-Thani. But there are no plans for a nightclub.

Students have set up their own societies for fine arts, environmental issues and music, among other things. Would they be able to establish an Amnesty group? Dr Al-Thani saw no problem with that. But the students did not seem particularly interested. "People are here to collaborate, not to get stuck into political issues," said one.

Returned to Iraq and never looked back

Jinanne Tabra, 21, is half-Scottish and half-Iraqi. After spending her primary school years in Carnoustie, a small town on the East Coast of Scotland, she came to Qatar for high school and never looked back.

Now sporting stylish dark glasses over her hijab, she exudes the confidence a young woman with a business administration degree should exhibit. Her plan is to set up an on-line store for children's books in Arabic. She could have gone to Qatar University but is clearly pleased to have been given the chance to get a highly rated American education at Carnegie Mellon University. "Carnegie Mellon was a really good fit," she says.

"I got a really good education in an Islamic culture."

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