U.S. education takes rootin Arab desert

Rising from the sands of Qatar may be the answer to America’s image problem in the Middle East. At least Anas Abou-Ismail, an 18-year-old Syrian pre-med student at the Cornell Medical College in Qatar, thinks so.

Abou-Ismail is one of hundreds of Middle Eastern students drawn to Qatar’s Education City, a 2,500-acre piece of desert being transformed into a world class educational facility — populated by U.S. institutions like Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon and Virginia Commonwealth University.

“In the long run, this will definitely affect the way the Middle East in general will view the United States,” Abou-Ismail said. “Education in itself is a good thing, so definitely it changes (the perception of the United States) in a good way.”

Winning over Arab public
With the war in Iraq grinding on and U.S. foreign policy perceived as hostile toward the Arab world, Education City is an apparent public relations success amid a string of failed U.S. efforts to win over the Arab public.

In this case, the U.S. government isn’t paying a penny. Qatar’s education reforms are the brainchild of Sheikha Moza, Qatar’s first lady who focuses her efforts on challenging deeply held traditions and building a more democratic society.

“Having these academic programs represents only the beautiful face of America,” Sheikha Moza said in an interview. “There are a lot of good things from America that we should adopt.”

Bringing the best America has to offer to Qatar hasn’t come cheap. Sheikha Moza says she and her husband, Sheikh Hamad, toured dozens of institutions around the world before settling on U.S. schools. With Qatar’s vast energy resources — it sits on the third largest natural gas deposit in the world — price was no object. “Quality, nothing else,” Sheikha Moza says. Investment in the project is in the billions of dollars.

“They have the resources to bring what is a very costly system of education that developed over centuries in North America and bring it here” in a period of just a few years, said Daniel Alonso, dean of Cornell’s Medical School in Qatar, which offers its full medical degree in Doha.

Drawing from the region
In Education City classes, Qataris are frequently the minority. The American universities have kept the same admission standards used in the United States and draw candidates from countries like Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Morocco.

Sheikha Moza says countless people have pointed out to her that it would be cheaper to send Qatari students abroad than spend billions on a few at home. “But it’s not just educating a few individuals. It’s educating the whole nation,” she says.

Christina Lindholm, the dean of Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, makes this point: “Most young Muslim women are not allowed to go abroad, and unfortunately since 9/11 many young Arabs find it hard to get even student visas to study in the United States.” By bringing the education to Qatar, the country respects its traditions and builds the future.

Life after high school
For students like Fatma al-Jufairi, pursuing a degree in interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University has been a revelation.

“Ten years ago, all the girls sat at home when they finished high school. That’s it,” 18-year-old al-Jufairi said. “But now, with Education City and all these facilities that are here at the moment, everyone wants to pursue their education and finish.”

Sakina al-Saidel, a 19-year-old pre-med student at Cornell in Qatar, the co-ed classes were a bit “weird” at first. She got used to that, and now dreams of becoming Qatar’s first woman surgeon.

“This education takes us a step further toward women’s rights, women interacting in society and better jobs. We don't have a woman surgeon in Qatar,” al-Saidel said. “I think people see that good can also come from America,” she said.

Sheikha Moza agrees. “We are trying to create the right environment, because we don't believe [women] are any less than any other people in the world.”

Future scholars
In a 2-story office on the Education City campus, a group of researchers from the RAND Corporation is helping to revamp Qatar’s entire education system. RAND and Qatar’s Supreme Education Council are developing new curricula for the country’s primary schools.

At the Ali Bin Abdullah boys’ school in Doha, the changes are taking shape in less than six months.

There's less concentration on religion, and more on music, drama and democracy. A group of 10-year-olds recently formed a model parliament to address the cost of food in the school cafeteria.

Dr. Sheikha al-Misnad, the president of Qatar University and a member of the Supreme Education Council, says the emphasis is on problem solving, creative thinking and responsibility. “It’s being the initiator rather than being passive,” she said, comparing the new curriculum to the rote learning of traditional schools.

The new style curriculum has not come without controversy.

“Some parents didn’t want their sons to become musicians or actors,” al-Misnad says. “But now, after four months, they are so happy about it and they are so encouraging. That's social change. It’s not always easy. It’s hard and difficult.”

Back at the Education City campus, Cornell pre-med student Abou-Ismail says the American-based education emanating Qatar could become one of the most influential factors in promoting peace and tolerance in the region.

“You learn to accept all different ideas and not to be scared of someone because he comes from a certain country or region, or because he’s of a certain religion,” Abou-Ismail said. “You learn to be very open minded and accept things and new ideas.”