“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 the sudden switch. She said that English proficiency should remain a prerequisite for graduation, though she went on to note diplomatically that Arabic is “our mother tongue, which we must work to revive.” But this patriotic language revival has not been extended to A&M or any of the other schools she oversees at Education City.
“We really are, I think, making some changes in this country,” said Mark Weichold, the dean and CEO of A&M’s Qatar campus on the day before he handed out diplomas to the class of 2012. It was the school’s largest class ever, with 87 students from 23 countries. Aside from a few local twists—for example, on religious grounds, many female students politely refused to shake hands with the male administrators as they crossed the stage—the ceremony was largely indistinguishable from what one might see in Texas. The American national anthem was performed as was the Qatari national anthem, and each speaker opened his or her remarks with a boisterous “Howdy!” The audience enthusiastically returned the greeting every time. At the end, everyone gamely attempted A&M’s alma mater, “The Spirit of Aggieland.”
Still, administrators often make allowances for things that wouldn’t fly in Aggieland. One glaring example is the school’s $150 million facility, which was largely built by members of Qatar’s sizable migrant labor population, many of whom are prevented from leaving the country and live in crowded conditions described as “deeply problematic” by Human Rights Watch. “It’s certainly not an environment for a worker here like it would be in the United States,” Weichold acknowledged. “But I think the country has made tremendous strides.”
One reason A&M may be such a presentable face of transformation in Qatar is that it offers a cautious, incremental version of change, one respectful of older ways of doing things. John Fenn serves as the president of the Doha Aggie Club, an alumni organization that predates the establishment of the branch campus. Before moving to Qatar to work for ExxonMobil, the 2005 A&M grad had never strayed beyond a three-hour driving radius from his Texas home. Still, he says, he fits right in. “I’m no expert, but there’s a very strong culture of tradition here,” he said. “Aggies, we live and breathe tradition.”