DC to Qatar: A Georgetown presence in Doha

January 29, 2015

Next Tuesday, Georgetown’s Qatar campus of the School of Foreign Service kicks off a two-day academic conference entitled “Scapes of Power: A Critical Appraisal” to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Mohammed Reza Pirbhai, an associate professor at SFS-Q and chairperson of the Conference Working Committee, describes “Scapes of Power” in terms that make it seem like a reification of everything SFS-Q has come to embody since its inception in 2005.

“At this particular time and in this unique setting, understanding the varied manifestations of power, past and present, its holders and those disempowered, as well as the variety of ways in which scholars define power within their disciplines, is essential to preparing for the inevitable changes in the exercise and distribution of power to come,” Pirbhai wrote in an event description for the conference posted on the website of SFS-Q.

Hosted inside the SFS-Q building in Education City, the modern campus that emerged like a mirage to cover over five square miles of desert a few miles outside Qatar’s capital city of Doha, the conference marks a fitting capstone to the school’s ten years in existence. Over that decade, the school has grown tenfold in terms of students and faculty and has become an epicenter of east-west educational cooperation in the Middle East.

Qatar’s initial overtures to Georgetown about the possibility of establishing a branch of the SFS in Doha were keen and ambitious, reflecting the small Gulf state’s meteoric rise to global prominence.

Interim Dean of the SFS James Reardon-Anderson, then-Master of Science in Foreign Service Dean, recalled meeting a delegation from Qatar Foundation comprised of members of the nonprofit’s board of directors. They arrived at Georgetown asking to meet with him in October of 2002. At the time, he knew next to nothing about Qatar.

Patrick Theros (SFS ’63), who had served as the United States’ Ambassador to Qatar between 1995 and 1998, accompanied the QF delegation. According to Reardon-Anderson, Theros had recommended Georgetown as a potential university of interest to the Qatar Foundation, which was in search of a program to train Qatar’s future diplomats.

“They had only heard of the School of Foreign Service, so we spent some time explaining who we are and what Georgetown is. And then they invited us to Qatar, so we went,” Reardon-Anderson said. He was accompanied to Doha by then-Georgetown College Deans Robert Gallucci and Jane McAuliffe.

Reardon-Anderson described the university’s two and a half year preliminary negotiations with QF as initially wary.

“The Board of Directors was especially concerned about the financial risk,” he said. “The university had lost a great deal of money on the operations of the hospital.” Additionally, Georgetown considered the potential risk to Georgetown’s reputation if its relationship with Qatar went sour.

Paramount to concerns of finances and prestige were questions about security. “This was in the midst of the Iraq War, and we had a lot to learn about the region. It turned out to be quite safe, but no one knew it at the time,” Reardon-Anderson said.

“The two sides really had to get to know one-another,” he continued. “We had to satisfy ourselves that we wanted to undertake what was, frankly, a risk—we had never done this before—and they had to satisfy themselves that we would be good partners.”

After negotiations lasting two-and-a-half years, an agreement was formally signed between QF and Georgetown establishing SFS-Q in May of 2005. Despite lacking students, faculty, and an educational facility to house them, the school enrolled its first class that August.

The original collection of six faculty members has since grown to number 50. Today, those 50 faculty members teach 250 students, split into thirds of Qatari nationals, non-citizen Qatari residents, and international students, most of whom come from the region.

SFS-Q did not develop in isolation. As the campus was established, an entire city grew up to support it and four other academic institutions that preceded its arrival, including Virginia Commonwealth University, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M, and Carnegie Mellon University. Formally named Education City, the campus now includes nine university buildings, two massive, multi-building dorm complexes that are shared by students enrolled at the schools, and is reachable from downtown Doha in about 30 minutes by car.

Reardon-Anderson recalls a brief moment of uncertainty on the day new students were set to arrive. “I went out in the hall wondering if anyone was going to show up because we had never done this before,” he said.

Then as now, students apply directly to and are admitted by the Doha campus. Reardon-Anderson described students on the Doha and D.C. campuses as equally high-performing.

“In the beginning, one of our biggest challenge was explaining to people, convincing them, that this was really the real deal,” Reardon-Anderson said. “That no one quite understood. I think in the beginning people had to take a risk, but eventually they learned what it was.”

Since the early days of uncertainty, SFS-Q received its own space in Education City, complete with a massive building, inaugurated in 2011, that houses classrooms, a library, dining hall, and other facilities for student and faculty use.

The expansion of Education City mirrored Qatar’s own ever-growing influence in regional and global affairs. In December 2010, Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in a decision criticized by some media outlets as corrupt. But Qatar’s heightened visibility has come with increased media scrutiny and concerns from advocacy groups about the country’s potential human rights violations, especially concerning migrant laborers involved in construction projects ranging from building soccer stadiums to performing maintenance on Education City.

According to Dean Reardon-Anderson, Georgetown was immediately sensitive to protecting the rights of migrant laborers.

“When we got there, Qatar Foundation was building buildings for the other campuses,” Reardon-Anderson said. “The two buildings built prior to the Georgetown campus both had fatal accidents on site. We went to the Qatar Foundation and said, ‘If we’re going to build a building with Georgetown’s name on it, we’re not going to have dangerous activities.’”

According to Reardon-Anderson, the Qatar Foundation cooperated completely, creating a labor safety committee and conducting regular on-site labor safety checks. The safety protocols resulted in no “lost time incidents”—meaning no one lost time from work because of an accident—during the construction of the SFS-Q buildings.

“We’ve worked with QF to develop a set of guidelines which QF has been very conscientious in enforcing,” Reardon-Anderson said. “All of the people who work on the Georgetown site who are not employees of Georgetown—we have maintenance workers, security officers, and the like—have their living conditions carefully vetted and if they’re not up to the standards then the contract with the contractor is not renewed. We’ve taken this very seriously.”

Georgetown’s status as a top research institution has also facilitated engagement with the issue of migrant laborers by SFS-Q faculty. Mehran Kamrava has been a professor and director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at SFS-Q since 2007, and served as interim dean of the school from 2009 to 2011. “Our location in Doha has allowed us to study some of these controversies close up,” Kamrava said. “The associate director for research for CIRS is an expert on migrant labor.”

SFS-Q students have also grown sensitive to issues of migrant labor. According to Tamim Alnuweiri (SFS-Q ’15), much of the emphasis on migrant workers’ rights came prior to Western media scrutiny. “Prior to the media exposure, people here were already scrutinizing and working on improving and changing the system,” Alnuweiri wrote in an email to the Voice. “However, the perception seems to be that we were all living blindly.” Alnuweiri describes a student organization operated in the SFS-Q building and other Education City campuses that advocates for fair treatment of workers in Qatar.

In addition to labor rights issues, some Georgetown professors were at first hesitant to research and teach in Qatar due to uncertainty about the country’s limitations on free speech. In Qatar, individuals can be arrested for criticizing the government or the royal family in public.

Kamrava recalled his own initial trepidation that moving to Qatar would limit his ability to publish freely but explained that he was wrong to be worried. “I realized that, in fact, it was not detrimental to my career to move here, as many people had warned, and that I didn’t have any limitations in terms of academic freedom, and therefore that I had no limitations on what I could teach, and what I could write and do research on, and so that was not an issue,” Kamrava said.

Students concur that academic freedoms in the classroom are protected and discussion of potentially controversial topics is both practiced and encouraged.

“Nothing is held sacred,” Alnuweiri wrote. “Many of these classes focus on issues that are quite controversial in the region. People discuss and criticize all of these issues as would be common on main campus.” Alnuweiri listed Gulf Politics, Global History of Revolutions, and Media in the Middle East as examples of courses being offered this semester at SFS-Q.

SFS-Q Dean Nonneman concurred. “The liveliest of debates come from students. Outside the classroom, there’s lots of very sensitive issues that are discussed.”

Nevertheless, Qatar’s motivations in attracting American universities to its shores have been scrutinized, sometimes negatively. An op-ed published in the Hoya last semester by Ari Goldstein (SFS ’17) criticized Georgetown for operating an “oppressive Middle Eastern dictatorship…funded by oil money and corrupt sheikhs” that effectively condones Qatar’s human rights abuses. Xiaofel (Phil) Wang (SFS-Q ’16) said that the article sparked discussion at SFS-Q.

Nonneman argues that the truth behind Qatar’s motives is more complex. While the country may not be seeking to democratize, he argues, it is pursuing a larger goal of national development. “If you look at how it’s been organized, the real reason Qatar is doing it, and the way in which they’re doing it, is because it’s tied into this bigger national development vision,” Nonneman said. “And the same can be said about Education City.”

Qatar’s criticisms and the scrutiny it faces are not a problem for Georgetown so much as something that must be worked with, a challenge to work cooperatively between cultures.

“This is not a fully developed Western country that shares all of our values,” Reardon-Anderson said. “If it were, I frankly don’t think there would be much value to Georgetown being there. We’re there precisely because it’s a different part of the world, and when you do that you have to realize that not everything there is going to be as you would have it. We’re trying to push on the right side of the issue. But I wouldn’t defend everything that’s going on there at the moment.”

Despite any ambiguity of Qatar’s political future, Georgetown is likely to renew its agreement and continue its relationship with Qatar for the foreseeable future, especially given what Reardon-Anderson described as the program’s success.

“Given our initial objectives, which were to establish an undergraduate degree program ensuring the standards and quality of Georgetown, I would say we’ve been very successful,” Reardon-Anderson said. “We will have graduated six classes in May, and we’ve produced scores of students with a Georgetown education. I think we can be quite proud of the students we’ve graduated.”

Education City has become something truly unique in the Middle East, and Nonneman believes its prestige will only grow.

“We expect there to be a new agreement before long,” Nonneman said. “Georgetown is valued as contributing something pretty unique. What you hear from the corporate sector, particularly, and from the ministry of foreign affairs, is that Georgetown Qatar graduates end up bringing a multiple-skillset combined with a drive and initiative and creativity that they simply don’t find as a rule of thumb.”

The potent combination of Qatar’s political ambition and Georgetown’s desire to engage the developing world on one of its most vibrant frontiers will likely see SFS-Q through its second decade.

Ultimately, argues Dean Nonneman, “We deliver what Georgetown and the School of Foreign Service aim to deliver: young people with critical thinking skills, who are highly literate and numerate, and who have no problem engaging with the world in its broader sense and taking initiative.”

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