A boom in higher education in the Persian Gulf

New institutions offer students the option of obtaining valued US degrees without ever leaving home - and women in particular are benefiting.

Arab woman 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arab woman 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Israel's higher education system struggles with endless funding crises and crippling strikes, those of many of her neighbors are racing ahead at lightning speed. For the first time, regional governments are directing their oil and natural gas revenues to building up their higher education sectors quickly by bringing in the best of the American universities, the world's leading brand name. These new institutions offer students the option of obtaining valued US degrees without ever leaving home. Moreover, some countries, most notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are rapidly building up advanced research capabilities in science, medicine and high tech. The recent wave of American universities is already sparking significant social reform as well, particularly with regard to the position of women. Throughout the Arab world, but especially in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, US universities have been sprouting up over the past decade in gold rush proportions. The governments of countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are funding the highest quality experiments themselves, in pursuit of far-reaching economic and social goals. In Doha's striking Education City, for example, the Qatar Foundation has spared no expense to bring in leading US university branch campuses in selected strategic fields including journalism (Northwestern), medicine (Cornell University), and foreign affairs (Georgetown). Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser al Misnad, the wife of the ruler, is the visionary behind this bold attempt to swiftly create a cadre of educated young Qataris and turn Qatar into a knowledge society. NYU Abu Dhabi, scheduled to open in 2010 fully funded by the emirate, will be the first full-scale US liberal arts campus abroad. IT'S IMPORTANT to keep in mind both the possibilities and limitations of a US university in the Arab world. What can and should an American university overseas be expected to achieve? To begin with, even in an age of globalization, universities remain, at heart, national institutions shaped by formative historical experiences. Nonetheless, they can be exported effectively by undergoing "localization." This demanding and dynamic process of planting roots in and adapting to the needs of the local society is the key to the long-term success of any foreign university abroad. Localization implies that the Arab nations will emphasize those elements of US higher education which suit their agendas. These countries are not electoral democracies and freedom of speech is limited. They don't aspire to become America. But the fact that these states' elites are receiving US higher education, imbued with some of the best of American values, will undoubtedly have unintended spillover effects. The campuses of Education City contain the only co-educational classrooms in Wahhabi Qatar. Here, students learn American investigative journalism techniques and wrestle with rarely discussed theological issues in the course "The Problem of God" at Georgetown. Once such doors have been opened, it is impossible to predict where it might ultimately lead. It will take time for the full effects of this phenomenon to trickle down into the broader society. However, US higher education is already transforming the status of women in these traditional societies. According to the World Bank, Qatar and the UAE now have the highest female-to-male university enrollment ratio in the world, with women outnumbering men three to one. Following graduation, Arab women are entering the work force in growing numbers. Spurred by government policies designed to localize the work force and reduce dependence on expatriates, female graduates are entering into previously restricted fields including engineering, architecture, and law. Women, who now have the right to vote, are running for public office and tasting financial independence for the first time. And this is just the beginning. It will be difficult to reverse this quiet revolution. In late January, I sat in Dubai with three students from Zayed University, a public women's university where all instruction takes place in English. Dressed in the traditional abaya and shayla, these young Emirati women told me that they would go on to arranged marriages following graduation. But, at the same time, they shared their ambitious career goals: a doctorate in education at Harvard University, a ministerial position in government, and plans to open a business. These intelligent, articulate women embrace their traditions but also plan to take full advantage of the new opportunities available to them. Once a mind has been opened, it is hard to close it. This is the quiet revolution that is taking place in the Arab world. The writer is a senior lecturer in government and the academic director of the Argov Fellows Program in Leadership and Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. She is currently completing a book on American universities in the Arab world.