More than in any other world region, the Arab Gulf states are experiencing a “higher education boom” in terms of the quantity and quality of institutions and programs now available. Over the past two decades, the Gulf states have imported a Western, largely American, model of higher education to address inefficiencies in labor markets and invest in their economic futures, to meet national reform agendas, and in some cases, to function as profit-making ventures. At last count, nearly 60 colleges or universities have been founded in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Oman by provincial governments, nation-states, private organizations and individuals.[1] Certainly, this boom has been financed by the region’s oil and gas wealth, but what is often overlooked in the attention placed upon the multi-billion dollar international deals and investments are the foresight, agency, and political will on the part of individual national leaders to plan for a knowledge-based future by investing in tertiary education today.

During the Islamic Golden Age of the mid-8th to mid-13th centuries, the establishment of the Bait al-Hikma [House of Wisdom] in Baghdad exemplified the ‘Abbasid leaders’ vision to base their civilization on the collective wisdom of world knowledge. Arab scholars of the time collected, synthesized, and translated into Arabic shared knowledge from diverse world cultures, including Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Egyptian, North African, Greek, Spanish, Sicilian, and Byzantine sources. Eminent scholars from around the globe were brought to this research and educational institute to share information, ideas, and culture.[2] Arguably, the modern legacy of the historic House of Wisdom was exemplified in the Arab world with the establishment of the Lebanese American University (1835), the American University of Beirut (1866), and the American University of Cairo (1919), albeit by American missionaries. So, there have been numerous examples of borrowing and lending between institutions and educational transfer across national boundaries throughout Arab world history.[3]

Across the Arabian peninsula today, American educational practices, curricula, and structures are prevalent enough as to seem uniform, but the borrowed model of higher education has taken various site-specific forms to meet the needs of the host society and environment: the American-style institution (e.g., American University of Kuwait), the turnkey institution (e.g., American University of Sharjah), the branch campus (e.g., Carnegie Mellon University, Qatar), or a full-fledged replica liberal arts campus (e.g., New York University, Abu Dhabi).[4] This institutional diversity is significant, because while it may seem obvious or instructive to compare the contemporaneous development of higher education institutions (HEIs) and characterize them in regional or global terms, I argue in this essay that education reform and change among the Arab Gulf states is a local affair based on local realities, not the least of which are individual leadership and the particular socio-cultural, historical, and political contexts in which the educational transfer occurs.

Most literature on educational borrowing/lending has focused on primary and secondary education in developing countries, usually in a grantor-grantee relationship between a developed country, or institution thereof, and a developing one. As such, a dependency or neo-institutionalist paradigm has prevailed whereby the developed country, in the role of a governmental agency, foundation, or as part of an international organization, has been seen to impose its institutional structures and practices upon a less developed one, signaling an unequal, North-South power relationship.[5] However, in contemporary educational transfer projects in the Arab Gulf states today, that historical power dynamic has been turned on its head, and the relationship between borrower and lender can be characterized instead as one of patron and client. Today, the borrowing Arab host country (or organization or individual) wields preponderant economic and political power as the local sponsor of educational products, services, and/or expertise. Thus, power dynamics are inverted due to the financial, legal, and political sponsorship of the borrowing nation, as well as by the agency and active engagement of its educational leaders.

This power shift allows the host country to control the financial terms and conditions of the partnership, if not always the quality and administration, of the provision of educational products and services. As such, the present importation by Arab Gulf states of Western higher education represents a paradigm-shifting phenomenon that accompanies the contemporary view of education as a service or commodity that is not only produced and consumed domestically but also traded internationally.[6] The traditional view of “granting” a Western education is not really applicable in a part of the world that is economically able to choose, buy, and import educational products and services. Far from being passive recipients of an ideal, global model of education or “world culture” that is universally applicable and relevant, the higher education initiatives in the Arab Gulf states are characterized by strategic research and planning, active engagement and partnership, and adaptive and results-oriented entrepreneurship. Indeed, in practice, the processes of educational transfer and the implementation of the foreign higher education model within the local context are more problematic, unpredictable and challenging than can be fully anticipated in the conceptual or planning stages. On the ground, there is a process of resistance, modification, and indigenization that occurs in the partnership between the borrower and lender. This “mutual adaptation” is indicative of the educational change that is effected through adaptations and decisions made by the parties to the transfer as they work with new policies, programs, and structures.

In the case of Qatar and its unprecedented investment in higher education at Education City, the country-specific factors of leadership and local context are significant. The Emir Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani founded the non-profit Qatar Foundation (QF) in 1995 and designated his consort, Her Highness Shaykha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Misnad, as its Chairperson. The Foundation’s stated mission is “to build durable human capacity [in order] to transform Qatar into a knowledge-based economy” by investing in the three pillars of education, science and research, and community development.[7] QF’s flagship project, Education City, is a 2500-acre campus that houses a network of learning institutions and centers of research which QF hopes will collaborate and cross-fertilize to become an engine of growth and change for the nation. Specifically, the primary goal is to make Qatar less dependent on foreign professionals by educating and training its citizens to assume positions of leadership and enterprise in a knowledge-based economy.

The Emir founded the Foundation the same year that he assumed political power, suggesting that the Emir and Her Highness possessed a clear personal vision of Qatar’s future from the beginning and acted early on to put in place the appropriate people and structures to realize that vision. Virginia Commonwealth University, the first American HEI to join Education City in 1997, began offering its arts and design classes to female students only. Now co-ed, VCU was joined by five other top-rated American universities over the past decade, each offering programs considered vital to Qatar’s economic development: Weill Cornell in 2001 (Medicine), Texas A&M in 2003 (Engineering), Carnegie Mellon in 2004 (Business and Computer Science), Georgetown in 2005 (International Affairs), and Northwestern in 2008 (Journalism and Communication). In 2010, QF also signed agreements with HEC Paris (Executive MBA, Executive Education and Management) and the University College of London (Museum Studies, Conservation and Archaeology) to offer their respective programs of study; and there is discussion of bringing a law school to Education City as well.

The fact that these particular American universities are resident at Education City was not a foregone conclusion or outcome; none of them lobbied to be there and, understandably, each institution had its own initial questions and concerns about the enterprise. It is known that QF originally tried to bring just one, multi-disciplinary research university to Qatar, but when it was unable to find a partner institution, it then went about inviting top-tier institutions with degree programs that met the nation’s most vital education and training needs. Each HEI was specifically targeted and sought out by QF for the reputation, knowledge, and expertise of their respective academic programs. In its choices of institutional partners and programs, QF was strategic with regard to Qatar’s national interests and considerate of long-term objectives, signing a multi-year contract with each institution.[8] While QF funds all operating costs, infrastructure, housing, and salaries at Education City, each institution negotiates its own budget and turns over all tuition money to QF. A key element of QF’s agreements with the universities, negotiated from the beginning and included in their respective Memoranda of Understanding, is that the branch campus follow the same curricula as at the home campus, charge the same tuition fees, and employ the same admissions standards.

Contrary to QF’s ambitious goals at the start of the enterprise, local realities have revealed some limiting factors, such as the poor quality of the public K-12 education and the dearth of Qatari males in higher education,[9] requiring QF leaders to rethink and adjust their expectations. While admissions at Education City are open to students of any nationalities, QF initially set targets that the majority of students, about 75%, would be Qatari nationals. Education City was initially expected to have tens of thousands of students, and as many as 15 universities. In the 2009–10 academic year, Education City had a total student population of about 1,500 students, of which about 45% were Qataris. As enrollments at Education City have risen, the percentage of Qatari students has declined. QF now says it will be home to no more than 5,000 students and 10 universities.

In the face of these local realities, QF has responded with strategic thinking and decision-making. One recent example: in June 2010, QF announced that it had formed a new umbrella institution, Education City University (ECU), which would supersede and encompass the six existing American branch campuses at Education City.[10] By most accounts, this was a surprise development that appeared to suggest a new direction in the evolution of Education City, one that will play out in the years to come. The new University administration, headed by Dr. Shaykh ‘Abdulla bin ‘Ali al-Thani, currently Vice President of Education at QF, would bring under one entity the six different American HEIs brought to Education City by QF over the past decade. Heretofore, the American HEIs have operated as largely separate institutions on a shared campus, each with its own identity and academic mission. By bringing the six university branch campuses under one institutional umbrella, QF would conceivably consolidate their programs, resources, and activities. First, by creating an overarching institution that would now house all current and future foreign branch campuses, QF would gain greater oversight of the universities’ administration, programs, and activities. This development would also seem to alter the recruitment and admissions processes for the resident universities, who heretofore have competed against one another for top students from a limited pool of qualified high school candidates in the region. Second, the newly “integrated, multi-disciplinary institution”[11] would also come closer to QF’s original idea to have a single, multi-disciplinary research university at Education City. Thus, Qatari educational leaders are adapting, modifying, and indigenizing the borrowed higher education model to make their national investment work for them. Whether or not Education City will become a latter-day House of Wisdom, it is still too early to tell. What is clear is that Qatar’s national and educational leaders have a clear vision and know what they want; and they’re taking strategic, decisive action.



[1]. John Willoughby, “Let a Thousand Models Bloom: Forging Alliances with Western Universities and the Making of the New Higher Educational System in the Gulf,” Working Paper Series, No. 2008-01 (Washington, DC: American University, Department of Economics, 2008).


[2]. Vartan Gregorian, Islam: A Mosaic Not a Monolith (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2001 Annual Report).


[3]. “Educational transfer’” is here defined as the movement of educational ideas, institutions, or practices across international borders. Typically, there is a borrower and a lender.


[4]. Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Elizabeth Hanauer, “Transnational Higher Education: Offshore Campuses in the Middle East,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the 53rd Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society, Charleston South Carolina, March 22, 2009.


[5]. Martin Carnoy, Education as Cultural Imperialism (New York and London: Longman, 1974); Philip Altbach and G Kelly, Education and Colonialism (New York: Longman, 1978).


[6]. IAU definitions, The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is a set of multilateral, legally enforceable rules governing international trade in services that was negotiated under the aegis of the World Trade Organization and came into force in 1995. Education is among the 12 sectors of services covered by GATS.


[7]. Qatar Foundation website,


[8]. Contracts with the HEIs at Education City are for a period of seven to ten years.


[9]. Shaykha Abdulla Al-Misnad, “The Dearth of Qatari Men in Higher Education: Reasons and Implications,” Higher Education and the Middle East: Empowering Under-served and Vulnerable Populations, MEI Viewpoints (October 2010),


[10]. K.T. Chacko, “QF Higher Education under One Umbrella,” Gulf Times, June 28, 2010.


[11].Chacko, “QF Higher Education under One Umbrella,”