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Digital desert: Qatar leads Arab world in tech education

The small nation is taking unprecedented steps in creating a major university center that can help lead it into a post-oil world.

Digital desert: Qatar leads Arab world in tech education

By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET
January 18, 2006 4:00 AM PT

DOHA, Qatar--Hot winds from the Arabian Gulf whip recently planted palm trees. A cab driver from Nigeria gets directions from a Pakistani security guard. A forest of construction cranes groans to life. Nearby, sand dunes stretch for miles.

Welcome to the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

A small country on the Arabian peninsula rich in natural gas deposits, Qatar is pouring billions into colleges, business parks and recruiting world experts who will, ideally, help it evolve from a petrodollar nation governed through patronage and clan ties to an energetic, self-sufficient member of the tech economy.

The effort is being watched closely throughout the Arab world and beyond, as each year brings heightened concerns that the region's historical profits from oil and gas may one day dry up. That prospect is driving many Mideastern nations, such as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, to try to develop the technological prowess needed to make a successful transition to other economic engines.

"Almost everything in the country is being reformed," said W. Mike Kemp, dean and CEO of Texas A&M at Qatar. "A diplomat told me that we're being scrutinized by the entire region. He said: 'If you succeed, everyone will copy it. If you fail, it's business as usual.'"

The heart of Qatar's groundbreaking efforts is Education City, where established U.S. universities provide full-fledged degree programs in computer science, business, engineering and other subjects. So far, five U.S. universities--Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth, Weill-Cornell Medical School, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon--have opened mini-campuses, and a new one is expected to be added each year for the rest of the decade. A journalism college will likely join next.

The ambitious academic campaign has ramifications well beyond education; it reflects some key values that are foreign to the region's traditional ways. Professors and administrators, for example, take pains to underscore that favoritism will not be allowed in the program and that degrees won't be watered down like night-school diplomas.

The students face the same admission standards, grading curves, textbooks, and even lectures from the same professors as their American counterparts. The inaugural classes of Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M completed their first year in May. None of CMU's 44 students dropped out.

Still, for any nation, the exportation of Western-style academia remains an uncharted and difficult endeavor. Administrators constantly worry about education quality, faculty recruiting and better technologies for distance learning. Finding qualified students hasn't been easy, even with scholarships from local companies for foreigners and free tuition for locals.

"A diplomat told me that we're being scrutinized by the entire region. He said: 'If you succeed, everyone will copy it. If you fail, it's business as usual.'" --W. Mike Kemp
dean, Texas A&M at Qatar.

While many come from Qatar, students are being recruited across a huge swath of land stretching from Morocco, Pakistan and Kenya, as well as some Bosnian Muslims who attend the medical school. Cornell, Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon have freshman and sophomore classes only, and no one has graduated from the Qatar program yet.

One of the most difficult challenges has been finding ways for students to learn from other students, both academically and socially.

"To put in place the whole support system that works in tandem with the academic program is a real tricky thing to do," said Bob Kail, senior associate dean at Carnegie Mellon.

To help rectify this, the campuses are creating bilateral exchange programs and are bringing over juniors and seniors as mentors. Furthermore, students at one Education City university can take courses at others, which rounds out the curricula.

In all, Carnegie Mellon has 19 full-time faculty members based in Doha, with eight more expected to join next year. Faculty members, of course, get reassurances that the transfer won't affect their ability to conduct research or obtain tenure.

"It is always a sales job, but once they are here they fall in love with the students and the concepts," Kail said.

For prospective students, one selling point is the opportunity to work at some of the leading corporations in the world. Graduates may have an opportunity to work at such places as the Qatar Science and Technology Park, a 120-hectacre tax-free tech complex scheduled to open in late 2006. Tenants to date include Microsoft, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, Rolls Royce and Rand, the Southern California-based think tank.

Oil companies also hope to use the Qatar campuses to stem a growing shortage of petroleum engineers.

"This will position us really close to the talent pipeline," said Andrew Brown, country chairman for Shell in Qatar. "What Qatar has proven time and time again is if you invest in infrastructure, you can create a world-scale position. Look at what happened with Al Jazeera. Education City may require a lot of time and money, but if you do it right, the top students will come."

"To put in place the whole support system that works in tandem with the academic program is a real tricky thing to do." --Bob Kail
senior associate dean, Carnegie Mellon

ExxonMobil, which conducts most of its research in Houston, will use the facility to study the environmental impact of circulating water used to cool refinery operations back into the sea, as well as technology related to local industries, such as the production of a fuel called Gas-to-Liquids, according to K.C. Williams, vice president of engineering.

"This will be the first time we have really established a research outpost like this," Williams said.

Once the science park is in full operation, the Qatar Foundation will add the next layer: a business incubator and a $100 million venture capital fund that will seek to identify and commercialize projects bubbling up at the universities across the street, according to Ben Figgis, marketing manager for the massive facility.

Luring star researchers - Continued »

Digital desert: Qatar leads Arab world in tech education

« Continued from previous page

And then there is the medical center, slated to open in 2010. In conjunction with Weill Cornell Medical School--the first such institution in the country--the foundation will erect a large teaching hospital and research center that will seek to rival U.S. metropolitan medical communities such as Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and New York's Sloan-Kettering, both of which have close ties with local universities.

Daniel Alonso, dean of Weill Cornell at Qatar, hopes that world-class facilities and opportunities will help lure the type of star researchers and physicians that major medical centers are known for.

The hospital will have an $8 billion endowment and a separate research budget of an estimated $146 million annually, roughly twice the size of Cornell University's endowment. Most hospitals don't have endowments at all.

"Projects of this nature in this part of the world generally have failed. Typically they build the buildings and bring in some Western doctors, but then they get tired and want to go home. A level of mediocrity sets in," Alonso said. "The endowment is to ensure it will be self-sustaining. We will be able to recruit a top CEO, the best clinicians. The ambition is nothing less than world class."

The hospital endowment aside, the financial rewards aren't massive for the individual universities. The Qatar Foundation pays all the expenses for running the campuses and will sponsor academic chairs at the home universities. But it's far from the largesse usually associated with petrodollars.

Rather than drawing donations, the main motivation among universities seems to be the pursuit of their own global agendas. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, foreign students have found it far more difficult to land visas to study in Western nations, and many Muslims say they feel uncomfortable in the United States.

A branch campus offers a way to reach the best students--who one day could become wealthy or powerful alumni--in the region before King's College or Tokyo University can. If such expansion becomes standard practice, education could become the next major export for the United States.

"What Qatar has proven time and time again is if you invest in infrastructure, you can create a world-scale position." --Andrew Brown
country chairman,
Shell in Qatar

"It is an untapped resource," said Bernadette Dias, a robotics professor who splits her time between Carnegie Mellon's Doha and Pittsburgh campuses. "At the same time, you have to worry about what it might do to your brand."

Indeed, the Middle East isn't the only region that is importing education. Carnegie Mellon is exploring the possibility of opening a public policy program in South Australia, and Duke University is helping Singapore establish a medical school based on its curriculum.

None of this will occur overnight, of course. In Qatar, years of work lay ahead before the dusty plains on the fringes of Doha resemble the bustling garden oasis seen in the marketing brochures.

At present, Carnegie Mellon occupies second-floor offices in Cornell's building. Texas A&M will create graduate degree programs after the dirt patch next to its existing building becomes a lecture hall. The future, however, is not difficult to imagine.

"How many start-ups are there in Qatar at the moment? Zero," said Figgis of the Qatar science park. "When you see the first Qatari CEO, the local papers will go nuts."