Field of education, not the football pitch, is Qatar’s arena

The National - 20 December 2010

Forget the football World Cup which Qatar will be hosting in 2022; the emirate is setting itself up to make even greater achievements in the fields of research and education. At the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha earlier this month, I was astounded by what was promised for the future.

Representatives from more than 100 countries discussed ideas and innovations, with the host nation setting the benchmark with its centres of excellence. While the world’s eyes were focused on the beautiful game, it seemed clear to me that Qataris were actually far more interested in the advancement of science and the arts, which dominates every section of society and is integral to the country’s vision for the future.

But another dimension was apparent at the latest Doha Debate, the televised discussion forum which will be broadcast to 300 million people worldwide in January. An audience of Arab students – many of them Qataris – sent a powerful message to the politicians who run their educational institutions. Fifty three per cent of the audience supported the motion that education is worthless without freedom of speech.

It was a relatively slim majority, but it said everything about concerns in the Arab world which were not fully addressed by WISE. The sad reality is that education remains a luxury for many in the Middle East and North Africa. Boys and – in far greater numbers – girls are prevented from attending school because of tradition, scarce resources and, indeed, oppression. Basic skills like reading and simple arithmetic are denied to many. Recent United Nations figures revealed that, in the broader regions of the Middle East and North Africa, more than 75 million women and 45 million men are illiterate.

Not a single Arab seat of learning is listed in the top 100 universities in the world. This is by no means solely a cultural problem, but also a political one. Often, education is reduced to training at best, or at worst indoctrination. There is no room for critical thinking, let alone dissent.

At the WISE summit, Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran United Nations adviser, said Arabs in places like the West Bank needed to ignore provocations from Israel and strive towards “growth through education, good governance and confidence”.

One of the ways in which Qatar has addressed regional education reform is by importing teachers and researchers. Imperial College London and Oxford University, two of the UK’s most elite educational institutions, were both enticed to the tiny Gulf state in 2008 to help it become the leading education and research hub of the Middle East. Earlier this month, University College London announced it would open a campus in the country in 2011, making it the first British college to do so.

The emirate is already home to branches of the American Weill Cornell Medical College, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University and Northwestern University. Prof Michael Worton, the vice provost of University College London, called such deals a “bridge between the Arab world and the West”.

Qatar is also leading the way in terms of empowering women, with female students making up almost 75 per cent of Qatar University’s student population. A driving force in this development is Sheikha Mozah, the wife of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The development trajectory is represented by the Qatar Foundation, founded in 1995 as a non-profit organisation focusing on education, scientific research and community development. The foundation organised the WISE meeting and is affiliated with the country’s Education City, which brings together the universities and numerous academic and training programmes.

The successful World Cup bid means that new stadiums will be built across the emirate, along with hotels, restaurants and other facilities to cater for the greatest soccer extravaganza on earth. Dr Abdulla al Thani, the chairman of WISE and the Qatar Foundation’s vice president, said the same effort had to be made to improve education across the Middle East and North Africa. As Qatar illustrates, the foundations are there and the world is watching, but there is still a very long way to go.

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