Georgetown’s Qatar campus: a cultural exchange and a bid for soft power

August 30, 2023

Design by Grace Nuri

Many Georgetown students are not well-informed on the happenings of the Georgetown community in Qatar (GU-Q). The most recent or prominent interaction some may have had is mistaking GU-Q classes for main campus classes in MyAccess. But the school is more than a registration roadblock.

“I think it’s very striking that there’s an entire other Georgetown University campus that exists on the planet that so many people on our campus either don’t know about or know very superficial things about and haven’t really engaged with in a meaningful way,” Sanchi Rohira (SFS ’24), a main campus student who studied abroad at GU-Q during the spring 2023 semester, said.

A Jesuit university in a Muslim country, Georgetown University in Qatar acts as a space for people of different faiths, ethnicities, and cultures to engage and learn from one another’s perspectives. It is also part of an education initiative to provide higher education to both Qataris and international students while generating soft power for Qatar.

In the outskirts of Doha, GU-Q was established in 2005 by invitation of the Qatar Foundation (QF), an organization founded by former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his second wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser to encourage domestic education and research. Neighboring GU-Q are international branches of five other U.S. universities, one British, one French, and a local Qatari university as a part of Education City, a QF development that began in 1998. Each university satellite campus has its own specialty—among them are journalism, art, and, of course, Georgetown’s specialty, international politics. Although fully funded by QF, GU-Q operates autonomously and reports directly to the provost in D.C., just like the various schools on Georgetown’s main campus.

“[Education City] is like a little college town, but it’s gated. So what we would call ‘campus’ at our D.C. campus would actually be Education City in Qatar. The Georgetown campus in Qatar is actually just one building,” Rohira said. As a whole, Education City comprises a total of 4.6 square miles, while Georgetown’s D.C. campus is only 0.1625 square miles.

When Rohira arrived at GU-Q in January, she found herself greeted by a welcoming and tight-knit community, although in many respects, it is distinct from her previous three years on the D.C. campus.

“[Qatar] is a conservative society. And that’s not a judgment. It is an observant society, religiously. That’s something that one should respect,” Safwan Masri, the dean of GU-Q, said. “I think our presence over there is quite significant because we’re a Jesuit university.” 

The placement of a Jesuit university in a Muslim country (constitutionally, Islam is Qatar’s official religion) is not in conflict, according to professors and administrators. Rather, it provides the opportunity for students to engage in cross-cultural connections.

“Although Georgetown is a Jesuit school, it also instills in students these values that I think are universal, and that cross quite many other religions as well, including Islam,” Zarqa Parvez, GU-Q assistant professor, explained.

Qatar’s cultural norms necessitate certain rules and structures, like gender-segregated dorms, with male and female dorms on opposite sides of Education City, and a dress code where shoulders and knees are to be covered. While many aspects of Arab and Muslim culture may feel unfamiliar to American students and many professors and attendees, learning to adapt and coexist is part of the inherent value of studying abroad in Qatar. 

“To be a global citizen, you need to be able to negotiate a fair conscience. You need to be able to operate effectively in different parts of the world,” Masri said. “You grow by being uncomfortable. If you’re always comfortable, then you’re complacent, and you’re not growing, and you’re not evolving.”

Interreligious life is not as comprehensive nor as emphasized at GU-Q as within the D.C. campus. There are, however, abundant opportunities to learn about Islamic culture; the Museum of Islamic Art is less than 10 miles away from GU-Q’s campus, and students are offered the option of attending religious services at the mosque and breaking fast with their Muslim peers during Ramadan.

“It was really beautiful to be able to interact with Muslim culture and Arab and Qatari culture that closely and be part of traditions with so many people that started to be like family to us and really brought us into their lives,” Rohira said.

Qatar’s central location in the Middle East makes it accessible to people from a variety of countries and allows the campus to curate a diverse student body. The student body is roughly one-third Qatari, one-third non-Qatari foreigners who reside in Qatar, and one-third international students, according to Masri. Collectively, students at GU-Q represent over 50 nationalities and five continents, according to GU-Q’s website.

Notably, QF provides funding for need- and merit-based scholarships for students; unlike most American universities, it doesn’t limit these scholarships to domestic residents, making it an attractive option for international students.

In the classroom, this diversity of backgrounds has proven eye-opening to some American students studying at GU-Q, including Rohira. On the first day of her Lawfare and Warfare class, Rohira said her professor asked who in the class had been directly or indirectly impacted by war. Every single person raised their hand.

“What that told me was not only how diverse the backgrounds were of the people that were in the class and in the university, but also it speaks to how much richer the conversation in the classroom will be when people have a personal stake,” Rohira said.

Parvez welcomes disagreements between students holding different beliefs; to her, it is an essential component of healthy discussion that allows students to broaden their perspectives.

“Until coming to Georgetown, people have already gone through multiple education systems, and they already have certain belief systems and upbringing and experiences that shape their perceptions of the world,” Parvez said. “What I can do best is to help them unlearn some of that, or to at least challenge that what they might hear today may not resonate with them or might challenge their belief system, and that is absolutely very healthy.”

Another unique aspect of the GU Qatar community is its cross-university integration within Education City. All students, regardless of university affiliation, live together in Qatar Foundation dorms. Students also have the opportunity to cross-register to take classes and attend events hosted by other universities.

Qatar’s investment in international education initiatives also serves as a source of soft power on the world stage. Hosting satellite campuses of well-established universities like Georgetown supports Qatar’s diplomatic efforts through international engagement and building its reputation, and attracts students to stay and work in the country.

“It is also a form of soft diplomacy. More people come from all over the world and study in Qatar,” Masri said. “Many of those students end up staying in Qatar and working in Qatar. So Qatar is a country that, because of its small population, relies a lot on—if you will—foreign expertise and skills.”

Establishing a global education hub is also part of creating an image, which is also part of Qatar’s security strategy in a region of constant conflict, according to David Roberts, associate professor at King’s College London. To him, many of Qatar’s actions are taken as preparation for conflict: if it were to be invaded, Qatar would want the world to be aware of the country—and subsequently such threats and events.

“Everything—from Al-Jazeera, to the gas, to the U.S. relationship, to the educational stuff, to the museums, to the sport, the culture—[is] about creating a huge image for Qatar around the Middle East, Asia, around the world,” Roberts explained.

Despite its efforts, Qatar has faced backlash due to its laws that limit the rights of women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Male guardianship rules are in place, and same-sex couples can face prison time. Its hosting of the 2022 World Cup was similarly controversial for its use of migrant laborers in exploitative conditions under the Kafala system. While some students have criticized Georgetown’s establishment in Qatar, others contend that its presence contributes to broader social change.

To Roberts, a liberal education equips individuals to foster change from the bottom up. “I think it’s more about creating global citizens … who are fundamentally more open to begin with to all of these ideas, and then just opening their eyes. And, so change comes slowly,” he said.

Roberts sees hosting these world-class institutions as a long-term economic strategy as well. “[The founders of QF] fundamentally believed in the importance of trying to give Qataris a liberal Western education, based in English, critical reasoning, all these sorts of things because they wanted to prepare Qataris for the post-oil and gas future, economic diversification, all these kinds of things,” Roberts said.

“I believe it’s part of the vision of a knowledge economy through which the country would train people to capitalize on their intellectual output, innovation and scientific research,” Parvez said. “The resources of the country, as one of the richest countries with ambitious development plans, allow it to invest in such projects, [and] therefore the ability to bring in well renowned American branch campuses to Qatar.”

As QF searches for more international partners, Georgetown hopes to expand its international presence in Qatar. While the expansion is in the preliminary stages, Masri hopes that more students will study at the Qatar campus and more faculty from the main campus will teach there. He hopes that as more people around the world learn about GU-Q and apply to undergraduate and master’s programs, selectivity in admissions will increase. For GU-Q’s class of 2025, its acceptance rate was around 28 percent.

“It is a great opportunity for the university to engage with the world and contribute to its development, and to contribute to education, particularly women’s education,” Masri said. In the 2021-22 academic year, GU-Q enrolled nearly twice as many female students as male students.

Georgetown also hopes to expand the course offerings beyond those for the School of Foreign Service. Every ten years, Georgetown renews and renegotiates its agreement with QF to better reflect its evolving goals for the Qatar campus. The last time the agreement was renewed in 2015, the decision was made to broaden the School of Foreign Service in Qatar (SFS-Q) to Georgetown University in Qatar, although courses remain limited to core requirements and major courses in the SFS-Q.

Masri is working with colleagues at the D.C. campus, including the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to create opportunities that will attract more students to spend a semester abroad in Qatar. Masri has considered additional fields of study including energy, Middle Eastern geopolitics, and Arabic.

To students, however, the invaluable experience of learning firsthand about Arab and Muslim culture, as well as interacting with an international and diverse community, is the biggest pull. Rohira hopes that more main campus students will study there in the future.

“I was able to really just take a step back from my life at Georgetown in D.C. and look at things with a broader eye for once to see that there’s not just one way to do things and there’s not just one way to look at the world,” Rohira said. “There are different lives you can live and different ways that you can look at the world, and they can all be simultaneously good and true.”

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Dunetop Hoya

The reality of Georgetown University in Qatar is actually quite different from what’s been stated here.
The Dean of GUQ, Safwan Masri, who is richly quoted in this report talking about higher ideals is known for his aggressive and apathetic attitude towards students. For a man responsible for just 500 students at GUQ, he is determined to stay aloof from the issues of students. One student wrote to Masri nearly thirty emails over a calendar year and Masri purposefully didn’t send any sort of reply to him.
There are separate financial aid systems for Qataris and international students. Aid for international students is arbitrary and more than a few students has been pushed into debt because they lost their aid for unexpected reasons or got less aid than needed.
International students are also particularly vulnerable to the idiosyncrasies of American administrators at GUQ who can upend their lives at their desire. A case is point is Dr. John Wright, a man who would be in jail if he had done the things he did at the Main Campus in D.C. instead of at the Qatar campus. When a student was assaulted by a colleague of his, John Wright initiated a case against the reporting student and appointed the assaulted as the Investigator in the case. In another instance, he broke into a student’s Georgetown email address and retrieved emails to use in a case against them. In yet another case, he hid witness testimonies by eyewitnesses who did not provide stories that fit his desired narrative. He got away with all of this because he was at the Qatar campus working in a legal vacuum instead of on the Main Campus. The GU-Q is much smaller so putting moral pressure on the administration to get rid of influences like Wright proves impossible.

Another Dunetop Hoya

I’ve got to step in here because what’s being said just doesn’t line up with what I know as a current student at GUQ. The person you’re talking about already got disciplined for saying some really racist stuff about a certain ethnic group. Even then, they showed up at an event for that group and caused a big scene. Because of that, they were put on leave, which was totally justified.

But even when they were away from campus, they didn’t stop. They used their Georgetown email to pretend they were part of the admissions team and tried to scam prospective students. That’s why the university had to check out their email. It wasn’t some random invasion of privacy; it was a serious issue.

I think it’s important to keep things in perspective. This was about one person messing up, not the whole university having a problem.