Mixing cultures at Education City

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The rapid expansion that Qatar, and specifically its largest city, Doha, has seen in the past few decades is remarkable. Set against the nearby gargantuan regions of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Doha may seem like no more than a cast-off suburb, but the unassuming city of 400,000 has been developing a strong set of ties with western universities.

In addition to the five universities already there — Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Virgina Commonwealth, Texas A&M, and Cornell — Northwestern plans to offer courses in journalism in the region. For a city roughly the size of Pittsburgh to have access to the best programs of a half-dozen of the U.S.’s premier institutions is extraordinary, but not without its risks. Such a high concentration of western higher-education institutions, not to mention a large cohort of western corporations, has the potential to wash out whatever traditional culture exists in Qatar.

In her 2006 commencement speech at Carnegie Mellon, Sheikha Mozah, chair of the Qatar Foundation, tried to draw parallels between the West and Islam in an attempt to diminish the idea that the two regions are at odds. While there are likely many common goals between the nations that we can work on, it is not a stretch to assume that Qatari students exposed to the nearly all-western faculty of Education City’s universities will develop news ways of thinking that accord with their instructor’s western views. This process is normal at all universities in the U.S., but here we are talking primarily about western influences rooted in a western context. In Qatar, western universities must necessarily erode some traditional Muslim or Qatari ways of thinking.

Many Qataris and visitors to Qatar seem to recognize this process, but remain unfazed. Most seem to think that Qatar knows exactly what it is doing and are satisfied with its progress. Indeed, The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development, which facilitates the development of Education City and the arrival of western institutions, has as its goal not the preservation of Qatari culture, but the development of Qatar’s small but able pool of human resources into a globally competitive workforce.

For Qatar, the question is not one of money for investment, but of time. Education systems can take centuries to develop, so a home-grown network of universities was out of the question. Instead, The Foundation decided to expedite the process. If your culture is holding you back from competing in the global marketplace, why not just buy another?

While developing strong education systems is key for smaller nations to make themselves competitive on the global level, doing so at the expense of traditional culture could have unanticipated repercussions. To take an environmental example, when Doha and Dubai wanted to sell real estate, it seemed like a great idea to build artificial island communities off of the coast, and they were a success. Now, however, we can see that the dredging necessary to build these islands has compromised the aquatic ecosystem of much of the gulf region. Unfortunately, making the most expedient choices in development can result in undesirable and irreversible consequences.