Some 800 students are currently enrolled here, but this number is expected to grow to 4,000 within a few years, with about half coming from Qatar and most others from the rest of the Middle East. Coeducation has not been an entirely natural process. In classes at Texas A&M’s Doha branch, students say the sexes still gravitate to opposite sides of the classroom, although Georgetown economics professor Ibrahim Oweiss has facilitated gender mixing in his classes by seating students in alphabetical order.
Creating an environment that encourages free and open debate may be harder to achieve. "When it comes from the top down, it’s going to take a long time before the ideas are accepted by the students," Oweiss says. Now that Education City is finalizing an agreement with Northwestern University to open a journalism school, the dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service satellite in Education City, James Reardon-Anderson, says he "can’t imagine there won’t eventually be conflicts" over curricular content, but adds that so far students in Doha have had no difficulty accessing books. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, as well as the writings of Rousseau and Jefferson, can be ordered from the Georgetown campus; books arrive by overnight mail.
"We don’t come here with an agenda of social and political change," Reardon-Anderson says. "We’re doing the same thing here that we do on the main campus—asking questions and going where the questions lead."
The emir’s 18-year-old son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, is in Georgetown’s inaugural class in Doha, and already his fellow students, in a seminar last year, have questioned the privileged status of Qatar’s ruling family. "People feel free to speak their minds," freshman Katrina Quirolgico, a student from the Philippines, says. But classmate Noor Saleh, a Qatari freshman who pairs her veil and traditional black abaya with a Dior logo necklace and a Gucci handbag, says her country has no need to copy everything from America and can find its own way. On the other hand, when the emir’s son ran for class president—and won—she backed another candidate: "I voted for a woman."
At Virginia Commonwealth University’s fashion-design program, I encounter more Qatari women eager for change. In a studio overlooking parched desert terrain, department chair Sandra Wilkins says she is constantly surprised at the designs devised by her Qatari students. "In Virginia, most of our students don’t create the kind of body-revealing clothing these girls do." Of course, she says, these "strapless, very tight, ultrafeminine clothes" are intended "for women-only wedding parties." When the school hosts its annual fashion show, she says, "We screen and edit the clothes so we don’t offend anybody."
I wonder whether this kind of screening would spare Qatar more radical transformations. Echoing her Georgetown counterpart, VCU’s dean, Christina Lindholm, assures me, "Our intention is not to import Western design. We give students tools that enable them to arrive at solutions that make sense in this country." Then, summing up much of what I have seen in Doha, she says that in observing developments in the Qatari capital, "you have a ringside seat on a culture that is taking quantum leaps into modern times."
Michael Z. Wise is a T+L contributing editor.