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Digital desert: Privileged nations face cultural obstacles

Throughout the Middle East, decades of wealth create societies where hard work can sometimes be a foreign concept.

Digital desert - Privileged nations face cultural obstacles

By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
January 19, 2006 4:00 AM PT

DOHA, Qatar--Even by oil-cartel standards, this small nation's wealth is extraordinary.

Qatar sits on 14 percent of the world's proven reserves of natural gas, ranking it third behind Russia and Iran. Its $30 billion gross domestic product has grown an average of 19 percent in the last five years, according to the State Department, and its per-capita GDP will soon be the highest in the world.

Because less than a quarter of the country's 900,000 residents are native Qataris, profits from the national oil company and its subsidies have allowed the government to provide subsidized housing, medical care, foreign education and other social amenities.

Yet these benefits are precisely why Qatar faces major obstacles in its quest to become a technology leader. Throughout the Arab world, many acknowledge that decades of luxury welfare have sapped the will to work in large segments of the population.

Almost no local residents work in the private sector. Indian and Pakistani emigrants drive cabs, run hotels and perform most of the working-class jobs in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. One man, who trains technicians how to fix mechanical problems on oil rigs, said local trainees invariably ask the same question on the first day.

"'Where's my secretary?' they all ask. I have to tell them that they are working in a machine shop," he said.

Professional white-collar jobs, meanwhile, are held mostly by English or American expatriates. Locals who do get corporate jobs are often hired for political reasons, some sources say.

"A tribe of foreigners is educating the kids, building the buildings, running the businesses," said Ben Reilly, who teaches history courses at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, including a U.S.-Arab relations course with students on both campuses attending lectures simultaneously over a video link. "There is a very real fear that modernization might be ephemeral if the expertise leaves."

Even local politicians acknowledge tokenism has been a problem in the region.

"Many years ago we told them they were an employee, and they did nothing," said Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, who holds the dual titles of second deputy prime minister and minister of energy and industry for Qatar. "They just sat there and got a salary."

Most locals find their jobs with the government, leading to inflated bureaucracies. Office hours for many positions run from 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

"There is a very real fear that modernization might be ephemeral if the expertise leaves." --Ben Reilly, professor, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar

Beyond the productivity issues, government officials fear that an idle and unemployed middle class across the region can become breeding grounds for discontent and even terrorism. Although Qatar has suffered only a few attacks and the nation has not produced any known terrorist leaders, the threat hangs over the country. Most five-star hotels require passage through metal detectors before entering.

Political and economic reform is a relatively recent phenomenon in Qatar that began in 1995 when the current Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani overthrew his father and vowed to put the country on course toward democracy. The two reconciled a year later but continued its reforms, such as giving women the right to vote in local elections.

Another visible accomplishment has been Al Jazeera, the Arab-language news network. With the sheik's approval, Al Jazeera became the first media company in the region not subject to censorship.

The Qatar Foundation was founded in 1995 under the direction of Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, Sheikh Hamad's wife. The foundation, which receives funds from the national oil companies, began to contact universities in 1999.

As benefactors go, Sheikha Mozah remains quite active. She visits the Qatar Science and Technology Park often and attends meetings on various campuses to discuss joint education and other collaborative projects.

Sheikha Mozah's interest, some believe, also stems from her desire to see more local women enter the work force, and Qatari women are responding by applying in large numbers. At Texas A&M, about 35 percent of the engineering students are women, far higher than most other engineering schools elsewhere in the world.

"Many years ago we told them they were an employee, and they did nothing...They just sat there and got a salary." --Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, second deputy prime minister, Qatar

"Men coming out of the high school system know they will be taken care of by the bounty of the state. But you get the sense that women have more to prove, especially if they want to have their own lives," Carnegie Mellon's Reilly said. "As long as they are in school, they are not under pressure to get married. And when you finally do get married you have some leverage."

Initially, the Qatar Foundation tried to recruit a single university to build a complete campus in the country. When those plans failed, it sought relationships with several institutions, each of which would replicate a couple of departments from the home campus.

Carnegie Mellon offers degrees in computer science and business, for example, while Texas A&M offers chemical, electrical, mechanical and petroleum engineering. Cornell has a medical school and a two-year pre-med undergraduate course. Virginia Commonwealth offers arts courses.

The departments are smaller than their U.S. counterparts, but growing. Weill Cornell Medical School had 16 students in the first class and 18 in the second. In a few years, the number is expected to grow to about 33. Texas A&M has 60 per class but will increase that number.

Early on, the Qatar Foundation and the government agreed not to interfere with academic policies or admissions, two key requirements for participating universities.

A hands-off policy - Continued »

Digital desert - Privileged nations face cultural obstacles

« Continued from previous page

"We were given every conceivable assurance that we would be able to function the same way we do in New York, but there were many skeptics," said Daniel Alonso, dean of Weill Cornell at Qatar. "The proof of the pudding in the end is who is giving the medical degree. It will be a Cornell University medical degree. If you do that, you are risking reputation. You are risking everything."

Admissions decisions at Cornell are handled by the same committee that performs the task for the main campus in New York. Students rejected in New York cannot reapply in Qatar.

At one of the undergraduate campuses in Qatar, a member of an aristocratic family was rejected. The foundation issued not a peep.

"We were given every conceivable assurance that we would be able to function the same way we do in New York, but there were many skeptics." --Daniel Alonso, dean, Weill Cornell at Qatar

A hands-off policy applies to the Qatar Science and Technology Park as well. After a few mis-starts, the foundation hired Angle Technology, a British consulting firm that helps U.K. universities commercialize technology, to handle its operations.

Angle, in turn, does not participate in the venture fund or invest in companies incubated at the park. The firm receives only a management consulting fee under a contract that runs through 2009.

"There is no Qatar-ization quota," said Ben Figgis, marketing manager for the Qatar Science and Technology Park. "If you want an office that is 100 percent Indian, you can."

That's a marked contrast to other countries such as Bahrain and the UAE, where the governments routinely push for local hiring. The leaders in the other nations also typically don't understand that the payoff on investments into research and development may not come for five to 10 years, said Mahmood Panjawi, a venture capitalist with Minah Ventures, which invests in the area. They often want a payoff in two years or so.

In a telling sign, Dubai Silicon Oasis, a semiconductor park in Dubai, has so far generated more revenue for selling building lots for condominiums than attracting chip designers. UAE leaders "want a knowledge economy, but they don't know what a knowledge economy is," one Western consultant said.

Cultural differences crop up among students as well. At Texas A&M, students rebelled against the university's decision not to create separate men's and women's lounges.

"The students protested. It was very tense," said W. Mike Kemp, dean of Texas A&M at Qatar. "'Why are you trying to destroy our culture?' they said. 'We're not. We're trying to make you into functioning engineers,' we told them."

Other social issues of Western higher education are more easily addressed--such as keg parties. Just one liquor store exists in all of Qatar, and only Westerners with a special license can shop there. Course-hopping has been less of a problem too, but that was because the students didn't really understand that they could drop out of a class after it began.

Arab students, meanwhile, say their American counterparts view their cultures in sometimes-laughable stereotypes.

"They were so afraid of us," said Carnegie Mellon student Fahad Hassan Al-Jefairi, who visited the university's Pittsburgh campus. "They asked, 'Do you have a palace in the desert? Do you drive a dune buggy?'"