Qatar, Building a National and Regional Knowledge Economy

Since gaining independence from the British in 1971, Qatar has grown from being one of the poorer countries in the Persian Gulf to achieving the highest level of per capita income in the world (by a long shot). Qatar’s wealth is derived largely from its vast oil and gas reserves, and with a population of just over 2 million (est. 2013), the tiny emirate punches well above its weight in terms of regional influence. Nonetheless, demographic issues are cause for significant concern among Qatari citizens (less than 250,000) who accounted for just 6 percent of the 1.25-million strong national workforce in 2009.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa has ruled the emirate since 1995 after bloodlessly deposing his father in a palace coup. Since then, the emir has introduced a series of reforms and is perhaps most famous for providing the freedom and capital needed to establish Al-Jazeera, a primarily Arabic-language news network that has simultaneously managed to annoy leaders in the West and leaders in the Middle East. Also of significant note is the role that the emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, has played in public life, with her drive to advocate for education, children’s causes and the role of women in society.

As with other carbon-rich countries in the region, Qatar is proactively seeking to diversify its economy away from a dependency on oil and gas, with industry demanding increasingly skilled labor to meet human resource needs. Proven oil reserves at current production rates are set to last just 20 more years, and while recent advances in the exploitation of natural gas combined with growing global demand suggest a longer shelf life for the Qatari hydrocarbon economy, the emirate remains committed to readying itself for a post-carbon economic future.

The government’s commitment to education and reform is evidenced by significant financial investments (19.6 percent of government spending goes to education), and meaningful commitments to education reform from members of the ruling elite. As a result of this commitment, literacy rates are today well above the regional average for both males and females in the adult and youth populations, while enrollment in primary education is almost universal.

Building a Knowledge Economy

In the mid-1990s, Qatar announced plans to revamp its higher-education sector in a bid to achieve its goals of building a competent locally trained workforce able to replace up to 75 percent of the expatriate community (not yet close to being met). Central to this plan was the creation of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development [2] in 1995. The Qatar Foundation is headed by Sheikha Mozah and its guiding principal is that “a nation’s greatest resource is the potential of its people.”

A more recent plan for the future of the emirate was outlined in 2008 under the Qatar National Vision for 2030 [3]. It describes how the nation’s vast revenues from hydrocarbon resources will be used to transform Qatar into a modern knowledge-based economy, prioritizing the development of human resources over the next 20 years, for the betterment of not only the nation, but also the region and the world. This is to be achieved through education and training policies, focused on national needs. There is a particular emphasis on the energy and industrial sector, but other strategies to create jobs include the development of business and commerce through incentives for foreign investment, the development of Qatar as a regional financial center, and the development of tourism.

At the tertiary level, one of the cornerstones of Qatar’s broad educational reform project has been the development of Education City [4], a 2,400-acre, multi-campus complex, which is home to eight top-tier international branch campuses including six from the United States [5]. Together, these branches and an academic bridge program constitute the recently named Hamad bin Khalifa University [6].

All the universities at Education City use the Academic Bridge Program [7], founded by the Qatar Foundation 10 years ago to help boost enrollments among Qatari students not sufficiently prepared academically to meet entry requirements without additional tutoring. The program teaches math, science and English as well as critical thinking and problem solving to Qatari high school students who otherwise meet university admission requirements.

Local citizens at Education City currently make up about a third of enrollments.

Academic Mobility

Data from UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics [8] suggest that Qatar is having significant success in helping to develop human resource capacity in the region, with the number of international students in Qatar increasing steadily in recent years from 3,393 in 2008 to 5,387 in 2010, an increase of almost 60 percent, with 3,791 coming from neighboring Arab states. In 2010, 58 percent of total international enrollments were among women.

There were approximately 3,700 international students at Qatar University and Qatar Community College (both public) in 2010/11. At Education City, total enrollments have grown from approximately 1,000 in 2007 to more than 4,000 from 85 different countries in 2012. Two-thirds of enrollments at Education City are among non-Qataris. The campuses have proven particularly attractive for students from Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. Officials have set 2015 enrollment targets at 8,000 students, which would equal the current student body at Qatar University, the nation’s only public university.

With the establishment of Education City’s U.S. campuses, the number of enrollments of Qatari students at U.S. institutions of higher education has increased significantly in recent years, but equally as evident is the growth in the number of students travelling to the United States for higher education.

Enrollments from Qatar at onshore U.S. institutions of higher education have increased by more than 180 percent since 2007/08 to a total of 971 in 2011/12, the third largest rate of growth of any source country over that time period (for countries sending more than 900 students), behind only Saudi Arabia (245 percent) and Libya (756 percent). Enrollments among Qatari students are primarily at the undergraduate level, and predominantly male.

Currently, the top destination country for Qatari students is the United Kingdom, with 1,050 enrolled there in 2010, compared to 657 in the United States (2010). Overall, the international mobility of Qatari students is growing quickly, doubling from approximately 1,300 in 2005 to just under 2,800 in 2010. This growth has been driven in large part by the introduction and expansion of generous government scholarship schemes.

While female students represent 68 percent of the tertiary student body in Qatar and over 75 percent of the student body at Qatar University, a much higher percentage of male students are abroad studying than female students. 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 30 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.


Scholarships for study abroad are available from the government and from state bodies such as Qatar Petroleum [9], Qatar Airways [10] and Sidra Medical and Research Center [11]. As many as 50 percent of Qatari nationals studying abroad are on government scholarships.

The Higher Education Institute [12], under the Supreme Education Council [13], manages scholarships, and domestically the government covers the tuition of every Qatari citizen. The government also provides lucrative overseas scholarship opportunities for study at any of the 675 institutions [14] around the world that meet its quality standards. In addition, gold-plated scholarship opportunities that include cash bonuses for good grades, are available to students that earn admittance to one of world’s 20 best universities [15] (15 U.S. universities, 4 British, 1 Swiss) under
the “Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani” scholarship, and one of the world’s top 30 universities [15] (19 U.S. universities, 3 Canadian, 2 Japanese, 2 Australian, 1 each Swedish, British, German, Finch) under the “Tamim bin Hamad” scholarship.

Students that complete the scholarship programs are required to work in the Qatari economy for the equivalent number of years as their scholarship period.

System of Education Overview


Schooling starts at the age of six and students are required to undertake 12 years of compulsory education. In 2010/11, there were approximately 91,000 students in primary education, with a net enrollment ratio of 96 percent. There were close to 88,000 children in all secondary programs in 2010, and a net enrollment rate of 83 percent. Nearly 55 percent of students across all school levels in 2010 were at private schools.

At the higher education level, there were close to 16,000 university students at both public and private institutions. Tuition is free to all nationals and to the children of non-Qatari residents who work in the public sector.

The education system follows a 6+3+3 structure, with six years of primary (6-12 years), three years of preparatory (12-15 years) and three years of secondary (15-18) schooling. In addition to public secondary schools, there are some specialized and technical schools, and also many private international schools for the children of expatriate communities in the emirate. Local children also attend these popular international schools, which offer curriculums and exams in accordance with the system followed, most commonly British and American. A total of 96,000 students currently attend private schools with just under one in five being Qatari nationals.

The education system is jointly regulated and managed by the Ministry of Education and the Supreme Education Council (SEC); however, the SEC has become more influential in recent years as it strives to raise standards in Qatar to a world-class level. Based on the recommendations of a RAND Policy Institute [16] study, commissioned by the state in 2002, schools – many recently created – have been given much greater independence under the SEC to develop their curriculums and manage their affairs than was formerly the case under the ministry. Qatar now has a set of curriculum standards for grades K to 12 that are benchmarked against the best in the world.

Nearly all subjects are now taught in English, and standardized tests have been instituted at the end of each grade, both as a measure of student performance and as a measure of the progress of reforms.

Secondary Credentials

At the end of the preparatory education level (Grade 9), students are awarded the General Preparatory Education Certificate.

Students in upper secondary education can undertake either a Scientific or Literary stream for their final two years, after a common first year curriculum. Successful students are awarded the Thanawiya aam Qatari (General Secondary Education Certificate), which leads to university study.

Students following the vocational or technical stream are awarded the Thanawiya Fanni (Commercial Secondary School Certificate) or Thanawiya Sina’ah (Technical SSC), which typically lead to employment, with limited access to higher education opportunities.

Vocational Education

Vocational education in Qatar is also undergoing major reforms with the goal of better aligning the skills of the local workforce with the needs of industry, while also improving the perceived value of vocational training in a region where such training traditionally has been negatively regarded.

With assistance from the World Bank, a Labor Market Strategy National Action Plan was produced in 2005 to define the needs of the economy as part of its ‘Qatarization’ strategy. The plan includes, as an objective, the creation of a national qualifications framework.

Qatar is currently looking to offer more pathways for secondary school leavers through the development of the community college model. In 2010, Qatar partnered with Houston Community College [17] under a five-year agreement, and opened the Community College of Qatar [18], the country’s first such college. The school currently offers two-year Associates Degrees in the arts, science and applied sciences. Enrollments have grown from 300 in 2011 to 1,500 currently. Graduates have the opportunity to transfer to Qatar University or universities at Education City under recently signed agreements.

Canada’s College of the North Atlantic [19] set up a branch campus in 2002, and delivers Canadian vocational diplomas. It has a current enrollment of over 4,500 students.

Qatar Petroleum employed the Western Australian Government’s Department of Education and Training to review its training methods in early 2000, and it took over delivery of training for nationals, offering Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) qualifications.

Higher Education

Qatar University is the nation’s only public university, with colleges of Arts, Sciences, Business and Economics, Education, Engineering, Law, Pharmacy and Sharia. The university offers mainly undergraduate programs, but each college also offers a handful of masters programs. A Doctor of Pharmacy and a Doctor of Philosophy were also introduced in 2011. In academic year 2010/11, the university reported an enrollment in excess of 9,000 students.

Qatar University began a reform initiative in 2003 to develop its institutional autonomy, pursue accreditation of its programs, and raise academic standards in response to the needs of the labor market. Working with the RAND – Qatar Policy Institute, the 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 [20], one of the six U.S. tenants at Education City.

All of the university’s colleges have been seeking accreditation from various respected international accreditors, with many having already achieved recognition and accreditation [21].

The university runs a semester credit hour system, and nearly all classes are conducted in English (with the exception of Sharia and Islamic studies). TOEFL or IELTS scores are required for admission (500PBT or 5.5 IELTS).

As noted under the “Building a Knowledge Economy” section of this article, Education City was established in 1995, and today plays host to eight top-tier global universities, with offerings ranging from journalism, computer science, business administration, information systems, design, international relations, medicine and engineering. All credentials from the various branches are issued by the home institution, and should be considered equivalent. The initiative has received significant backing from the government in order to ensure the quality of the education that is delivered.

Outside Education City, the University of Calgary – Qatar [22] offers foundation, diploma, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in nursing at its Doha campus to a current enrollment of over 330 students. The Netherlands’ Stenden University Qatar [23] offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with majors in International Tourism Management and International Hospitality Management.


Education reform in Qatar, from primary level to postsecondary, is among the most comprehensive in the region. However, much remains to be done if the goals of ‘Qatarization,’ outlined under the government’s Vision 2030 plan, are to be met and reliance on temporary immigrant workers lessened.

It is too soon to tell if projects begun well over a decade ago will transform the emirate into a true knowledge economy free from a dependency on oil and gas revenue, but it appears fair to say that it is becoming one of the most important regional actors in the field of education innovation. Results are being seen at the grassroots basic literacy level through to high-end university research. Significant investments are being made in ensuring quality standards, while some of the best universities in the world have viable and established campuses in the emirate. Additionally, an increasing number of Qataris are travelling abroad to receive world-class training at universities around the world, with over 1,000 currently in the United States alone.

However, the small size of Qatar’s citizenry makes it highly unlikely that goals related to the reduction of the size of the expatriate workforce can be met without significantly increasing higher education participation rates, especially among males.