Hullabaloo, Qatar! Qatar!

Now that Texas A&M has opened a campus in the Middle East, can it hold on to its traditions? Can the Middle East?
Photo Illustration by Darren Braun

Some people consider this the dark side,” Thamer al-Kuwari joked as he sat in a meeting room overlooking one of the many courtyards at Texas A&M University at Qatar. The 25-year-old was graduating the next day, so this was one of the last times he would enjoy the building’s cool marble interior as a student, and he was in a reflective mood. Three other Aggies were with him, discussing what is, for Qatar, the novel experience of attending coed classes.

Fatima Makki said many of her classmates initially found it “a bit weird.” But by junior year, some of the boys had told her they had come to prefer having a girl in their work groups. “That way the meetings are always organized and things go according to plan,” she said. “You would agree with me, wouldn’t you?” she asked al-Kuwari.

He thought back to his pre-Aggie mind-set. “We didn’t know how to talk to women,” he said. “But coming here, we now know exactly what to do, exactly what to say, and we realize that they are normal humans too.”

Heba Elboursaly, an Egyptian who grew up in Qatar, chimed in. “I think it’s good that Texas A&M is helping people get over this,” she said.

Good” is one way of putting it. “Ironic” is another. After all, A&M’s College Station campus fiercely opposed coeducation for decades and didn’t admit women until 1963. But in Doha, the capital city of this Middle Eastern nation, the school is on the leading edge of social transformation. A&M at Qatar, which next year will celebrate its tenth anniversary, is part of Education City, a fortresslike, 3,500-acre artificial oasis that houses branches of eight foreign universities. It’s the hallmark project of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development, a nonprofit that is dedicated to building a knowledge-based economy. A&M at Qatar offers only engineering degrees and produces the most graduates of any institution at Education City.

It’s not the only school in Qatar with Texas ties. There’s a Qatar branch of Houston’s Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions, and Houston Community College supplies the faculty and curriculum for the Community College of Qatar, the first institution of its kind in the country. These Texas connections are largely a result of the energy-industry ties between the Gulf petro-state and the Lone Star State, ties that grew even stronger with the 2009 launch of Qatar Airways’ nonstop flight between Houston and Doha.

The odd upshot is that Texas, generally regarded as a force of conservatism in the United States, is now an ally of progressive forces in the Middle East. It’s not so much what, precisely, is being taught in the classroom—engineering is engineering, after all—as it is the simple fact that the egalitarian American approach to education has set up shop in a very inegalitarian place. A mere 22 percent of college-age people in the Arab world attend universities.

Part of the role of any university there is trying to find the balance between preserving their institutional ethos and integrating into the local community,” said Jason Lane, a senior researcher with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies, at the University at Albany in New York. As a part of Education City, which Lane described as a “walled-off, gated community,” A&M has a lot of leeway in striking that balance. But its separateness may limit the school’s influence. “For some in the country, Education City is perceived as this liberal bastion that they want to avoid,” said Lane.

One aspect of that liberalism, as Fatima Makki’s experience demonstrates, is the inclusion of women, who make up more than one third of A&M’s Qatar campus (compared with one fifth at College Station’s engineering school). “The petroleum industry is hiring all of our female engineers,” said Mashhad Fahes, a petroleum engineering assistant professor. “And in most cases they are finishing in better academic standing.”

Not everyone finds these sorts of changes welcome. Though A&M occupies a privileged perch under the protection of the Qatar Foundation, other schools are overseen by the government’s Supreme Education Council and are more vulnerable to social pressure. Shortly after the Community College of Qatar opened its doors, it had to abandon its ambition to be a coed campus when it became clear that many Qatari students would not tolerate it. Earlier this year, the council abruptly mandated that Qatar University, the largest university in the country, teach most courses in Arabic, despite concerns that de-emphasizing English could make graduates less globally competitive.

There was a fear in the community that we had pushed [Westernization] really far,” said Sheikha Bint Jabor al-Thani, a vice president at Qatar University, where the issue became a heated topic of debate. When Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, the first lady of Qatar and the chair of the foundation, visited the university in April, students asked her what she thought of

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