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The Expanding Doha, Qatar

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Photo: Thomas Loof

In the view of Qatari officials, science is not to be confined to a museum: "The past is the basis for the future," the librarian says. And, in fact, I saw large banners fluttering along the capital’s boulevards advertising a Founding Conference of Expatriate Arab Scientists. Some 200 Arab scientists now living in the West came to the meeting to discuss collaborations with research institutions in Qatar. "I’ve been waiting for a long time for this to happen," says Antoine Naaman, a Lebanese-born engineer at the University of Michigan.

He and others I meet at the conference are dazzled by the most prominent of the emir’s three wives, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who heads the state-funded Qatar Foundation and is reforming Qatari education from kindergarten to graduate school. A glamorous figure, she broke with custom five years ago when she appeared in public without a face covering; leading the drive to revive scientific excellence, she has pledged millions of state dollars for research and has successfully recruited universities from around the world to open branches here at a new campus called Education City. Even so, some scientists say that if Qatar is serious about stanching the brain drain, money alone is not enough. Essential too, in their view, are democracy and a concomitant climate hospitable to debate. "Qatar is a sort of haven," Nobel laureate Harold Varmus says, adding, "It’s not perfect and it remains to be seen how deep the commitment is."

Yet change is clearly afoot. The emir has pledged to hold parliamentary elections, and though Qatar’s media remains timid and reflects the government’s views, public discourse is in some ways more free than elsewhere in the Arab world. To witness this directly, I had only to walk from the scientists’ conference at the Sheraton to the adjacent Four Seasons Hotel, where the government had organized a gathering of Islamic,  Jewish, and Christian clerics to pursue interfaith dialogue. It included six American rabbis and two from Israel, with an invited representative of the Israeli foreign ministry.

"This meeting is helping to fight ignorance," Israeli Ambassador Ali Yahya says, expressing confidence that the emirate is moving in a positive direction. "Qatar has the ability, they have the goodwill, and they have the money." The European and American clerics also praise the Qataris for holding the unprecedented event. "Qatar is an oasis of knowledge and development," Rabbi Reuven Livingstone, from London, says.

Such exuberant assessments—were they realistic or wishful thinking?—rang in my mind as I made my way to Education City, the 2,500-acre campus where Cornell Medical School, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown University, and Texas A&M are already teaching a new generation. The sprawling compound, a 20-minute drive from Doha, is still under construction, but it already resembles a well-equipped state university in Texas or California.

The student body, however, could not be more different from those on most U.S. campuses. Many of the Qatari students arrive in chauffeur-driven cars or gleaming SUV’s. "Please remind your maids that they are not permitted beyond the entrance door," reads a notice outside one building. This means students must carry their own laptops and book bags, and Qatari officials hope they will adopt a more innovative mind-set overall.

On this $12 billion campus, in a step revolutionary for the Gulf region, men and women study together, for degrees granted by U.S. institutions according to the schools’ own admissions and curricular standards. Besides palatial new buildings by Isozaki and Mexican architects Legoretta + Legoretta, Education City will soon include an 18-hole golf course, a small airport, a teaching hospital with an $8 billion endowment, and a science and technology park. "It’s an unparalleled endeavor," says Madeline Green, the American Council on Education’s vice president for international initiatives. "There’s no other place in the world like it."

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