Qatar as a Model for Educational Reform in the Arabian Gulf

As students from the Middle East travel to the United States to enhance person-to-person diplomacy through educational exchange, American universities are in turn moving east to develop academic ties and establish branch campuses in the Arabian Gulf. Qatar in particular has emerged as a magnet for American universities seeking to broaden their international reach.

And it is not only the tertiary sector in Qatar that is changing, indeed the tiny emirate is now emerging as a model for reform at all levels on the educational ladder. However, it is at the university level in particular that Qatar is becoming globally recognized as a regional hub for modernization and opportunity. Students from the Gulf and broader Middle East can today enroll in undergraduate and graduate programs at top-tier American universities without actually having to travel to the United States, an opportunity that is of great appeal to students wishing for a U.S. university education, yet fearing that America has become less welcoming, both socially and bureaucratically, in the years since September 11, 2001.

As the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) begin to diversify their economies to relinquish dependency on oil revenues, industry in the region is demanding increasingly skilled labor to meet human resource needs. However, there is a dearth of qualified local talent, so much of the regional workforce continues to be imported from abroad. This picture is beginning to change as labor ministries have begun to stress the importance of nationalizing their local work forces by enhancing the quality of local educational opportunities. Rather than build from the ground up, a model of importing high-quality tertiary providers is emerging.

Importing Education not Workers

In the mid-1990s, Qatar announced plans to revamp its higher-education sector in a bid to achieve ambitious goals such as replacing 75 percent of the expatriate community employed by the crude oil and manufacturing industries with locally trained and employed workers by 2010. Central to this plan was the creation of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development [1] in 1995. The Foundation is headed by Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser Al-Missned, wife and official consort of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, and the guiding principal of the foundation is that “a nation’s greatest resource is the potential of its people.” One of the cornerstones of the broad educational reform project has been the development of Education City [2], a 2,400-acre, multi-campus complex, which is home to five top-tier U.S. universities and the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute [3].

Qatar is a tiny nation where 83 percent of the population is foreign and just 150,000 people are citizens. This transient population sends a large chunk of the nation’s GDP to foreign economies in the form of remittances. In order to retain capital, bolster the domestic economy and stimulate national workforce incentives, Qataris recognize the need to reclaim their labor market. Furthermore, the leadership believes that in order to protect the rich culture, values and history of the Arab-Muslim world from being hijacked by extremists, a major investment in and commitment to education is essential.

Constructing a world-class system of higher education is no simple endeavor, and many GCC countries have opted to invite a few select organizations to develop homegrown tertiary institutions based on Western educational frameworks. The Qatar Foundation, however, aims to go beyond and instead envisions a local network of universities that would share research and resources while offering instruction in a multitude of fields critical to national economic development. Moreover, the Foundation wants the educational forum to be within reach of the community and to build relationships between the private and public sectors through a national discourse.

The Qatar Foundation’s willingness to seek help from abroad and to commit a significant portion of GDP to educational reform has been the driving force behind the development of the Education City project. In the ten years that the project has been under construction, an estimated US$1 billion has been spent and much more promises to be spent. The tuition of every Qatari studying there is covered by the government, which alone is a huge incentive for overseas institutions thinking of opening a campus at Education City. Further sweetening prospective deals are the multi-million dollar donations the government of Qatar has reportedly injected into the coffers of the five institutions currently established at Education City.

The idea of inviting high quality universities to establish branch campuses in Qatar was an innovative solution to the problem of providing an internationally competitive education without having to build local capacity from scratch, or having to totally revamp existing institutions. That is not to say local tertiary institutions are not benefiting from the project. With the help of U.S.-based think tank RAND Corporation [4], Qatar University [5] – the nation’s only public university – is redefining its mission and structure to better serve the nation’s needs. As part of this new mission, Qatar University is establishing a new teacher training college in partnership with Texas A&M [6], one of the five U.S. tenants at Education City.

This can be considered as, if not more, important than the development of Education City if one considers that more than 9,000 students are currently enrolled at Qatar University and fewer than 1,000 walk the campuses of Education City (a number officials hope will grow to 8,000 by 2015). In addition, the nation is now implementing a new scholarship system to motivate qualified students to study abroad at elite institutions around the world.

Increasing Access for Women

And many Qataris do currently study abroad. However, the vast majority are male, which helps explain why almost three quarters of the student body at Qatar University is female, and why enrollment at the campuses of Education City is predominantly female.

Because Qatari women are rarely able to travel abroad without a male chaperone, the transplant of U.S. campuses to Qatar now means that women in the emirate, who make up almost 20 percent of the workforce (more than twice as high as in neighboring Saudi Arabia), enjoy the same access to high quality westernized instruction as their male peers, even if they don’t have the opportunity to enjoy the same cultural experience of studying overseas. From the outset, expanding higher-education opportunities for Arab women was one of Sheikha Mozah’s main goals for the Qatar Foundation.

The Campuses

Virginia Commonwealth University [7], the first American institution to join Education City, seized on Sheika Mozah’s vision by opening Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUQ) [8] in 1998 and offering its arts-and-design program to an exclusively female enrollment. The school offers a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design, fashion design and interior design – currently the only fully accredited design program of its kind in the Middle East. The faculty is predominately from and educated in the United States, while the 200 students currently enrolled at VCUQ come from 26 countries, including Middle Eastern, Asian, African and Western nations.

In the first four years of operations, the school essentially offered open enrollment with application numbers equaling enrollments; however, since students from the inaugural class began graduating in 2002, the application process has become much more competitive. In 2005 and 2006, just 1 in 4 students from 200 applicants were accepted, and beginning in the fall of 2007, VCUQ will begin admitting male applicants for the first time.

Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) [9] was the second institution recruited by the Qatar Foundation and was the first U.S. medical school ever set up overseas. Established in 2001, WCMC-Q offers a two-year pre-medical program followed by a four-year medical program leading to a Cornell Doctor of Medicine degree. The Qatar Foundation announced in 2004 the construction of a 350–bed Specialty Teaching Hospital close to the Medical College in Education City. Supported by a US$8 billion endowment, the hospital is due for completion in 2009. The campus has a current enrollment of more than 160 students, and the first class of 16 students will graduate next year after completing the six-year program. This year’s entering class has 50 students.

To provide a much-needed engineering curriculum to Qatar’s educational landscape, Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ) [10] was established in 2003. TAMUQ offers undergraduate degrees in chemical, electrical, mechanical and petroleum engineering, and will help to ease over-dependence on foreign labor, one of the Qatar Foundation’s priority goals.

In March of this year, the campus celebrated the opening of its newly dedicated engineering building with guests that included former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara. The new building not only houses classrooms for undergraduate studies, but also a research center supported by graduate programs that will begin in fall. In December, the campus will graduate its first class of Texas A&M University degree holders. Almost 200 students are currently enrolled.

Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q) [11] opened its doors in 2004 to offer undergraduate degrees in business and computer science. Although the public sector predominantly employs Qatari nationals, the highly competitive private sector is often dictated by expats from Britain, South Asia and other parts of the Middle East. CMU-Q seeks to equip Qatar’s businessmen with the tools they need to compete in the domestic and international marketplace. In 2006, 120 students were enrolled at CMU-Q. Similar to admittance rates at Virgina Commonwealth, about 1 in 4 applicants were admitted in 2006. Fifty students on campus are from Qatar, 34 from the broader Middle East, 15 from Asia, 15 from North America and 6 from elsewhere.

The latest U.S. campus to open at Education City, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar (SFS-Qatar), was established in 2005 to promote diplomatic training. Playing host to U.S. Central Command and the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves, the state of Qatar is well served opening a campus that will educate a generation of diplomats trained to understand the complexities of today’s international geopolitical arena. The campus offers a four-year program leading to a Bachelor’s Degree in Foreign Service.

The first non-American university is scheduled to open its doors in August 2007. The University of Calgary (UC-Q) [12] will provide a Bachelor of Nursing degree to supplement Cornell’s medical degree. UC-Q will form part of Qatar’s College of Nursing Project, which is aimed at providing world-class nursing education and research programs. The program will prepare nurses for excellence in clinical nursing and lay the foundation for master’s and PhD studies.

A sixth U.S. campus is reportedly under negotiation. According to recent press reports, Northwestern University [13] in suburban Chicago is working on a deal to open a branch campus that would offer a journalism program at Education City, which is just a ten-minute car ride from the headquarters for Al-Jezeera, the Arab world’s hugely popular and first satellite news network. Under the plan, the University’s Medill School of Journalism [14] would offer students in Qatar an undergraduate curriculum similar to the one at its Evanston, Ill., campus, The Chicago Tribune reported in early April.

Reforming K-12 Education

In addition to university campuses, Education City also plays host to a branch of the RAND Corporation, a policy research and analysis organization based in Santa Monica, California. The RAND-Qatar Policy Institute [3] was recruited by the Qatar Foundation to help improve educational policy and to implement reform of Qatar’s education system from kindergarten onwards, in association with regional scholars and institutions.

Among the projects spearheaded by RAND-Qatar is an initiative being undertaken in collaboration with the Supreme Education Council to revamp the nation’s K-12 education system. According to a report [15] issued in April by the RAND Corporation, in just three years, the State of Qatar has begun a far-reaching redesign of its K-12 education system, incorporating school autonomy, variety in curriculum, parental choice and accountability measures. The report describes the first phase of the K-12 reform project – 2001 to 2004 – which saw the opening of a first generation of independent schools. Meanwhile, the reforms were hailed as visionary and systematic at a recent conference on education reform in the Arab world.

International speakers at the ‘Education and Change in Qatar and the Arab World’ conference in April of this year were full of praise for the Qatari reforms. At a panel discussion, Professor Dominic Brewer from Southern California University School of Education said that “in Qatar, the change from 2001, when the Ministry of Education operated 200 single-sex schools catering to 70,000 students, to 2002, when the system was standardized to international models, with new independent schools separated from the ministry, is remarkable.”

The reform model has involved the creation of three new government institutions: The Supreme Education Council is responsible for setting national education policy; the Education Institute oversees new independent schools and allocates resources to them, in addition to developing national curriculum standards in Arabic, mathematics, science and English, and developing a teacher-training program; while the Evaluation Institute monitors student and school performances in both the Ministry and independent schools. By the fall of 2004, the Education Institute opened 12 independent schools, which were selected from a pool of 160 applicants. In 2005, 21 additional independent schools opened and last year, 13 more opened. Today, there are about 46 independent schools; parents also can opt to send their children to private schools or Ministry of Education schools.

RAND-Qatar has also been instrumental in implementing Qatar’s scholarship system, designed to provide financial assistance to students otherwise unable to attend universities at Education City.


The Qatar Foundation is spearheading far-reaching, broad-based education reforms that are being undertaken in a spirit of international cooperation. Considering the current geopolitical climate and the tensions that exist between East and West, this nation of less than 1 million people might be held up as a model for regional reform. A model that is based on international collaboration, the sharing of ideas and the indirect promotion of western ideals and influence through what Harvard Professor Joseph Nye might term ‘soft power.’ However, the Education City experiment is not about power, nor influence. It is an initiative that was promulgated by the East and embraced by the West. The organic development of this project, therefore, may serve not only as a model for reform among Middle-Eastern leaders, but also for those in the West impatient to see social and political reform in the Middle East.