Education in the Gulf

Knowledge instead of Oil

The Arab Gulf states have discovered education as the raw material of the future. In order to quickly move ahead, they are importing universities from the west. There is still room for many more students – even those from abroad. A report by Arnfrid Schenk

Students in Oman (photo: dpa)
Even the Gulf states will someday face a scarcity of oil, which until now has been the most important pillar of their economy. This is why they are now counting on education

​​ Arabic is not a language one learns merely to pass the time. When the rector of a German elite university spends more than a year of his precious free time to sit and memorize Arabic vocabulary, then there must be a good reason.

And Burkhard Rauhut has one. The long-serving rector of the RWTH Aachen University has been a professor emeritus ever since mid-2008, but he is already facing new responsibilities. Since 1 September, he has headed the German University of Technology in Oman (GUtech), an affiliate of the RWTH located in Masqat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. The country in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula has three million inhabitants, is famous for its incense and mountains, attracts geologists from all over the world, and has amassed a fortune in oil wealth. But in terms of university education, the country is more or less breaking new ground with this project.

In Aachen, Rauhut had 30,000 students, while the student population of the German University should only reach 2000 in a few years. The university is provisionally housed in two beachfront villas on the Arabian Sea. The building plans for the new campus hang on the notice board. "We want to begin small," says Rauhut. There is more deliberation here than in neighbouring countries.

The future lies with knowledge

A real education boom has begun in the Gulf Emirates. As the oil frenzy approaches its end, the sheiks are placing their bets on education to ensure a future for their principalities. The raw material of tomorrow is knowledge. Focus is given to the natural sciences, economics, and technical fields. In order to quickly get ahead and because high quality is desired, they are simply buying what they need – usually from the west. And the universities are pleased to come, especially those from Australia, Britain, and the USA. The Gulf states prosper, there are university positions to be obtained, and education is turned into a highly successful export. Where else can you get a complete campus served up on a silver platter?

International financial centre of Dubai (photo: AP)
The international financial centre of Dubai. In recent years, the city has developed into an important global hub of finance

​​ Qatar, for instance, has constructed a gigantic "Education City" and numerous American universities offer their programs there. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the Sorbonne has opened an affiliate institution and the New York University is also represented. Dubai proudly shows off its "Knowledge Village" and its ruler, Sheik Mohammed al Maktum has announced a 10 billion dollar foundation to promote knowledge and research. Even Saudi Arabia, not exactly known as a country that values science, aims to attract an international scholarly elite to the country's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Some 12.5 billion dollars has already been set aside. Among those interested in participating is the Munich Technical University.

The opportunity enjoyed by the RWTH Aachen University in Oman has a great deal to do with Michael Jansen, Professor of Urban History at RWTH. The founding rector of the German University, he set up an archaeological park in the Sultanate and established a close-knit academic network over many years, without which there would not have been an Aachen affiliate.

A different culture of learning

The students will be able study in the Faculties of Information Technology, Earth Sciences, Urban Planning, Regional Management, and Tourism. The student fees amount to around 4000 euros a semester. The German University in Oman is not meant to be a teaching institute, but, above all, a research university. The funds for the campus, staff, and research come exclusively from Omani investors – and the content exclusively from Aachen. Appointments are similarly made through the RWTH.

Burkhard Rauhut (photo: dpa)
Burkhard Rauhut is the founding rector of the German University of Technology in Oman and is studiously learning Arabic

​​ "The greatest challenge will be to maintain our quality. There is a different culture of learning in these countries. Here, memorization is emphasized. We want to promote creativity and independent work," says Rauhut. To ensure quality, the DAAD is also involved. There is a preparation year in order to bring the future students up to necessary university standards. Those who don't pass the exams at the end of the "foundation year" are not accepted.

Günter Flügge, retired Professor of Physics, instructs the new students in mathematics and physics. Looking out from the windows, one can see the waters of the Arabian Sea slowly lapping up onto the shore and fishing boats rocking in the blistering heat. Inside, in room 313, the air conditioning provides for comfortably cool surroundings. Nonetheless, the brains of the young students are heated up. Seven young women sit at tables in two rows. Most are wearing head scarves – black, red, and even leopard patterned. Their laptops and handbags are on the desks. Two young men sit next to them.

Flügge is reviewing the material from last semester with them. Next week are exams. They are covering Faraday's laws and the Newton's third law. The students have to develop the formulas themselves. "That is the best way to understand them," explains Flügge. "Here, they want to learn the formulas by rote and just apply them. They aren't interested in why the formulas exist," he says.

Progress in Oman

Talal enjoys this different style of instruction. He is 20 years old and wants to study earth sciences. He would prefer to someday earn his living in Oman. "We haven't cloned the RWTH. Instead, the courses have simply been tailored for Oman," says Barbara Stäuble, academic director of GUtech. The choice of study material should conform to the regional conditions, just as the manner in which the material is taught. Only the degrees must be equivalent.

Student in Oman (photo: KPA)
An education boom is taking place not only in Oman, but also in the other Gulf states. Most of the staff and infrastructure are imported from abroad. Yet, they don't only want to copy. A homegrown educational approach is the goal

​​ "The quality should be the same as that in Aachen," says Christoph Hilgers, vice-rector of the university, "and the way to get there will be a different one." It will also take time, even when the country under the rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said has made rapid progress. In 1970, there were only three primary schools in Oman with room for 900 boys. Today, there are over 1000 schools for boys and girls and there are over 17,000 students in the country, the majority of whom are women. "Quantitatively, they have caught up quite a bit, but, in terms of quality, there is still a lot to do," says Stäuble. This is a problem that Oman shares with most countries in the Arab world.

Education: The plight of the Arab world

The miserable state of education here is highlighted by the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report. It investigated the quality and quantity of the educational systems in the 22 countries of the Arab League. The results were bitter. Only 0.2 percent of GDP was spent on research in the Arab world (compared to 2.3 percent in Israel and 2.5 percent in Germany). Patent applications are practically non-existent, while the level of illiteracy is shockingly high. Only two universities from the 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) make it into the international ranking of the top 500 universities – and both of them are in Turkey. In addition, there is a massive brain drain. Every fourth university graduate emigrates, usually to Europe or the USA.

Veiled woman in front of the skyline of Doha, Qatar (photo: AP)
Doha is one of the boom cities in the Gulf. The oil and gas reserves, which have until now provided for prosperity and economic growth are to be complemented by a new raw material – education

​​ At least the problem is recognized. And in some countries, an effort is being made, particularly in Qatar. The country is tiny – a strip of sand projecting out from the edge of the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf, some 160 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide, with a million inhabitants, 800,000 of who are expatriates, mostly from Asia.

The Lonely Planet travel guide once referred to the capital city of Doha as the most boring spot on the planet. Those times are long gone. The Emirate under the leadership of Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is now the stage of international conferences, the Al Jazeera news network has its headquarters here, and the small country is said to be sitting on a sea of oil and the third largest gas reserves in the world. While this will one day run out, the ruling family is investing heavily in education in order to build an economy independent of oil and gas.

Study like in America, live like in Arabia

The flagship of this endeavour is Education City, built by international star architects. Top American universities offer their programs here: Carnegie Mellon educates computer experts and managers, Weill Cornell Medical College trains doctors, the Texas A&M College specializes in engineering, and Georgetown University has a program for diplomats. Here, also, young men and women study together. The exact same programs are on offer here as in the USA. The same goes for the selection procedure, graduation standards, and degrees. The motto is "study like in America, live like in Arabia" – a better alternative for many students from the region after the events of 11 September.

Sheikha Mouza bint Nasser al-Missned (photo: AP)
Sheikha Mouza bint Nasser al-Missned is the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation. Its largest project is "Education City"

​​ This is particularly the case for women, as many families in Muslim countries prefer not to send their daughters abroad without a chaperone. They have benefited most from such education initiatives. The driving force behind the education offensive is the Qatar Foundation, which was initiated by a woman – Sheikha Mouza, wife of the Emir.

A glimpse of the university buildings makes it clear that funding has not posed the slightest problem. Students from Germany's dilapidated mega universities would simply break down in tears. The lecture halls are furnished with wood panelling, the chairs have armrests, the tables are equipped with microphones, live video-lectures from the USA are available, and there are work areas with the latest computers for students along the corridors. The campus also includes a science park where international companies such as Shell employ graduates to carry out development work. There is even an adjacent golf course. Admission fees are the same as in the USA – some 15,000 dollars a year at Texas A&M. Students from Qatar can study for free, courtesy of the state.

The only thing familiar from the west that is missing here is the student lifestyle. Most students live with their parents, go to the university in the morning and come home in the evening. On weekends, they meet with friends and family and go on excursions. "The way in which we have fun here is rather different than in the USA," says one female student. She doesn't give the impression that she is missing out on anything.

From brain drain to brain gain

What Education City lacks is more students. The campus was built to accommodate thousands of students – until now there are only 1000. The students are not only to come from Qatar, but also from the whole region, even the whole world. It is meant to become a hub of knowledge. There is still a long road to travel to reach this goal. And it must also be demonstrated that such an education import is sustainable.

This past May, 122 students were the first to graduate from the university. Celebrations were held with great pomp. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was even flown in from London. Guests included foreign dignitaries, academics, and journalists. The students marched past in their gowns between two pillars of light. In his speech, Emir al-Thani praised the students for paving the way towards a "knowledge-based society."

Noor is one of the graduates, having completed a degree in economics. She wears jeans, lipstick, and an elegant headscarf. She could have chosen to go to a university in the USA, she explains in perfect American English, but wanted to remain in Qatar because of her family. She has started up a translation bureau in Doha. A fellow graduate has begun her career at a bank. She says she also wanted to remain in the country. "We can't force students to stay here, but we must do something so that they see remaining here as the better choice," says Fathy Saoud, President of the Qatar Foundation. "In the long-term, we want to transform the brain drain into a brain gain."

Arnfrid Schenk

© 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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