Qatar: a regional market with the potential to surprise

The Middle East continues to show why it is becoming an increasing focus for student recruiters. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia often stand out as the most striking in their growing prioritisation of education, today’s ICEF Monitor article proves that there is more to the region than just these two markets. Qatar, for example, is pulling out all the stops in its aim to improve education quality and to become a regional education hub in its own right.

A rising power

As The Economist notes of Qatar, “Until oil and gas made it rich, beginning in the 1960s, this tiny, scalding, pancake-flat peninsula scarcely boasted a settled population, let alone a town of any size.”

But in 1939, oil was discovered in Qatar, and the country’s accumulation of massive wealth can be traced back to that year. It is now listed as having the largest natural gas reserves in the world after Russia and Iran.

Since then, and especially since the Arab uprisings of 2010, Qatar has sought – and achieved – an increasingly influential position in the Middle East, economically, militarily, and politically. But it hasn’t just limited its ambition to its surrounding region. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) reports:

“Qatar’s investments in East Asia, Europe, and the United States in infrastructure projects, real estate, financial institutions, and even soccer clubs are turning the emirate into a key player with influence in these arenas. In the annals of modern history, it is hard to find a similar instance of so tiny a nation implementing a foreign policy of such high profile.”

As it has in so many other rising powers (e.g., China and India), education has been climbing rapidly up to the top layer of the priority pile for the rulers of Qatar.

An international strategy for education

In a move to prepare itself for a post-oil future as well as prevent potential Arab Spring uprisings, the government (with the aid of the Qatar Foundation, a partly private, partly government-funded foundation devoted to education and research) is investing heavily in higher education, vocational skills, and primary education: Qatar spends 4.1% of its GDP on education, currently the highest in a region that is, overall, allocating more and more money to this priority.

The BBC summarises Qatar’s motive succinctly: “When the oil runs out, they want to be left with a viable, advanced economy.”

Laudably, says the BBC, the Qataris are forging their new education path in an incredibly international and sophisticated way.

For example, the Qatar Foundation launched the WISE Summit (World Innovation Summit for Education) – an annual international conference in its fourth year that examines ways of improving schools across the world. Its associated major award, the WISE Prize for Education, has been touted as the “Nobel Prize” for the global education sector. Other WISE Awards have supported projects in Africa, South Asia, South America, and Europe.

The Qatar Foundation also launched Education City (which has since been renamed Hamad Bin Khalifa University) with the goal of making it a regional hub for education by setting up state-of-the-art facilities and bringing in foreign universities. Multiple foreign partnerships have been made: universities such as UCL, Cornell, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon have opened campuses in Qatar.

Right now there are six US branch campuses and one each from the UK and France affiliated with Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

The Qatar Foundation has been actively recruiting students for its educational hub, with large scholarships and marketing efforts in the region. Alongside this, the government continues to sponsor Qatari students to study abroad though its various state agencies.

Facts and figures

UNESCO Institute of Statistics estimates that there are currently 2,798 Qatari outbound students. The UK is the number one destination, with a little over 1,000 students studying there. The US boasts the next highest number of Qatari students, with 979 students (771 undergraduate) studying in the US in 2011/12 according to IIE Open Doors, an increase of 36.7% over the previous year.

The average GDP in Qatar is US $102,800 – the highest in the world. With 60% of the population under the age of 30, the country is young and the population is growing at the fastest rate in the world, and faster than predicted.

According to a recent survey by the Supreme Education Council (SEC), Qatari parents are paying close to US $3,000 per month to send their children to school, further highlighting the spending power of the population.

Recruitment strategies and student profiles

Many of the recruitment strategies used in the UAE are applicable in Qatar due to similar demographics. Social media is huge in Qatar: Qatar was recently ranked number 1 in terms of Facebook penetration in the Middle East and North Africa and also has the highest penetration rate in the Middle East on Twitter.

Given Qatar’s young population and high social media penetration rates, online and social media marketing will be of critical importance to recruiters interested in students from this country.

Those involved in English language training – as well as universities seeking to attract Qatari students – should take note of the following: English proficiency is relatively low on a world scale, though higher than some other Middle Eastern countries: Qatar ranks 37th out of 54 nations, ahead of Kuwait (45th), the UAE (49th), Saudi Arabia (52nd) and Libya, the lowest-ranking country, according to the 2012 EF English Proficiency Index.

Thus, English language skills upgrading may not only be a good opportunity, but necessary to help Qataris succeed with goals of studying academics abroad.

Institutions looking to recruit Qatari students are also wise to respect cultural and religious sensitivities. For example, the UK’s University of York includes the following on their website:

“For our Muslim students, there is a prayer room on campus as well as a local mosque within a short walking distance from the University. Halal food is available in most of our cafés and restaurants, as well as halal sandwiches which can be purchased from the Students Union shop on campus. Students who would prefer to live in single-sex accommodation can opt for this by notifying our Accommodation Office.

With a diverse student population of over 100 nationalities, you can be sure of making life-long friends from all over the world. We have over 180 social, cultural and religious societies including the Islamic Students Society, the Islamic Society and many other student societies.”

For a backgrounder on the educational and cultural profile of Qatari students, please see here.

To support Qatari students to achieve the highest education possible, the Higher Education Institution’s scholarship office offers a series of scholarships. There is also a generous scholarship programme for specific disciplines from Qatar Petroleum, as well as the Qatar Airlines Scholarship Programme.

The future

Qatar definitely has its sights set on being a knowledge economy, and an internationally oriented one at that. Its budgetary allocations to education, its continuing development of Hamad Bin Khalifa University, and its young population are positive signs both for institutions wanting to set up branch campuses in the country and for those hoping to attract Qatari students overseas.

Possible obstacles to Qatar’s progression along its stated educational path include questions about academic freedom and freedom of expression in general. For example, regarding Hamad Bin Khalifa University, the Times Higher Education recently wrote:

“The institution may be young, but in the eyes of critics it does have the “baggage” of being backed by the Qatari state, which in November handed a life sentence to the poet al-Ajami for ‘insulting’ the emir and ‘inciting the overthrow of the government,’ according to reports ….

The Qatari Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but journalists and academics often practice self-censorship and slander is an imprisonable offence, according to the Washington-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House.”

However, the Times Higher Education article also noted:

“The branch campuses that provided statistics suggest a steady rise in student numbers.”

“The Georgetown branch, for example, accepted 83 first-year students in 2012/13, up from the 43 it accepted in 2009/10, although its total undergraduate body will peak “within the next two years” at slightly over 300 students.

UCL-Q has recruited 28 students, nine of whom are Qatari, on to its taught postgraduate programmes in 2012/13, its first year of operations – four more than the outpost’s target.”

The verdict is not yet in, but Qatar has a recent history of quietly, steadily achieving what it wants. As the Northwestern University student-founded Politics & Policy blog points out:

In recent years, Qatar has proven to be an influential and rising political force in the Middle East. By cultivating an image of a peaceful and neutral world power, an unusual category for Middle Eastern countries, it has forged strong and lasting bonds between many dominant international players, and has risen to become a mediator within the region ….

Above all else, Qatar has pursued and most likely will continue to pursue a foreign policy that draws distinctions not between democracy and authoritarianism, but rather stability and chaos, the former of which is most conducive to allow its rise to continue unabated.

For stability, Qatar needs a knowledge economy. And it certainly seems to realise this requirement – and be putting the necessary steps into action.



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