By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
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.
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."
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.