Liberal Arts Education In Qatar Education Essay

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Qatar is a small Arab emirate in the Persian Gulf with a strict Muslim outlook. Its natural resources have brought the country extreme wealth. The oil and gas revenues are responsible for rapid economic growth which led to modernization, especially in education. In 1995, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development was established. This is a non-profit private foundation which engages with research centers, renowned universities and other academic institutions in the world in order to provide high standard research and educational opportunities for Qataris. The foundation is chaired by Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, the second wife of emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

At this time, an enclave of six American universities is located in Education City in Doha, Qatar's capital. Education City, inaugurated in 2002, is a 10 million square meter site on the outskirts of Doha and it is seen as the Foundation's most successful project. The American universities that offer degrees here are: Weil Cornell Medical College, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (international relations, diplomacy), Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Design, Texas A&M (engineering), Northwestern University (media and journalism) and Carnegie Mellon (business and computer programs).

These universities were selected by the Foundation for the high standards of their respective programs, programs which are vital for the continuation of Qatar's modernization process.

First of all, Qatar needs an increase in the number of academically trained professionals, preferably those who graduated from recognized universities. This is important because the country wants to gradually replace foreign workers with suitably qualified and professionally competent Qataris. This process, called Qatarization, is implemented in both private and public sectors. Moreover, the universities represent broad opportunities for women, since Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned is a strong advocate of women's education. Many families do not allow their daughters to travel abroad for higher education, hence having access to renowned university programs in the country brings significant culture-related advantages to young female students. Many female students are aware of this new opportunity, such as Maryam al-Ibrahim, a twenty-two year old second year student at Virginia Commonwealth. She states "I don't want my father's money or my husband's money. I want to work for a private company and be myself, and I would like to become someone important here".

However, the arrival of western university education in Qatar is not warmly welcomed by everyone. Some critics say that it harms the traditional way of life , because students are exposed to western objectives, demands and educational expectations. The liberal arts model demands from students to be critical thinkers, to challenge generally approved systems of values, to discuss or question existing ideas and beliefs and to engage in a full range of academic principles. This education model goes beyond the traditional view of education prevalent in Qatar. Qatar's traditional education philosophy is closely connected to the Islam and based on memorization, orality and transmission of divine knowledge. Consequently, most opposition of liberal arts education is focused on ideological arguments.

By examining the historical, cultural and social contexts, this papers aims to review the development of liberal arts education in Qatar.

Short history of Qatar

Since the middle of the eighteenth century, Qatar is dominated by the Al Thani clan. This clan's roots are in the Najd area in present day Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, Qatar was a poor tribal country, where a few tribes were settled along the coast. Many tribes chose to lead a Bedouin nomadic life. People's income used to come from fishing, pearling and camel breeding. The discovery of oil in 1939 changed this. In 1949, the oils subtraction and exports began. The United Kingdom gave up its protectorate in 1971 which made Qatar a fully independent state. Since this independence, Qatar has been determined to transform its tribal system into a modern society. The oil and gas revenues are used to improve the infrastructure system, services and economy.

The current emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is very progressive and tolerant in comparison to previous emirs. He advocates a course of social, political and cultural reforms. The censorship office called the Ministry of Information was closed down and Al Jazeera was established. Al Jazeera allows for more free access to information and more freedom of speech. A national referendum on a permanent constitution and municipal elections have been introduced. Other reforms include establishing the previously mentioned Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and setting up Education City. These developments launched a major reorganization of the old-fashioned local school system.

All in all, Qatar has undergone a drastic transformation since 1995. It has changed into a country 'of global prominence', instead of being a not worth mentioning emirate in the Gulf. However, the country is still in a state of transition. Qatar holds on to its conservative Muslim identity while simultaneously taking on new opportunities. Thus, the transformations are quite revolutionary in nature, but they have been implemented as watchfully as possible, because Qatar remains a relatively conservative country. At this moment, many Qataris feel that the progress of change is going too fast. They think of westernization when they analyze the growing modernization of the country. This progress of westernization is considered to be harmful to indigenous societal and cultural standards and values.

Culture and Society

Bedouin and Islamic beliefs and customs define Qatari society and culture. Society is still tribal in essence which creates a highly conservative outlook. The many developments that have taken place in recent times were not able to change this system. Qatar's society is very dependent on the strict code of honor and shame. This code is enforced by society's hierarchical, group-oriented and pragmatic look on life. This kind of culture heavily influenced Qatar's education system. Education is focused on practical and tangible outcomes. These outcomes include professional skills which are motivated by a drive for success in society. Qataris want to obtain rewards which improves one's social position. By improving one's own position, one can also improve the social position of one's clan, family or tribe. The quality of education and the attitude towards it may have been influenced by this viewpoint. The main reason why Qataris attend school or university is to obtain a school diploma or university degree. The content and quality of the education system are seen as matters which are unimportant. Students are not concerned with this nor are teachers, educators or parents. Consequently, the public sees education as merely something that can trigger financial and social rewards. This appears to be a major cause of the poor quality of Qatar's local education system.

Historical Developments of Education in Qatar

There was no official education system in the country before the discovery of oil. As a result, most children learned to read and write in informal classes. These classes were usually taught in homes or mosques. They were taught by literate men and women who used the Islam as a framework in their teachings. Hence most children were required to memorize passages from the Koran and they had to learn Koranic verses by heart. Only upper class boys were taught simple Arabic literacy skills and arithmetic. Hamad ibn Abd Allah opened the first 'modern' school in 1949. In this school, one teacher was responsible for fifty boys. The school received government funding in 1951 which resulted in an increase of students and teachers. Class subjects ranged from English to history and Islamic religion. Three years later, three more schools for boys were opened. Education for girls was set up in 1956. The school for girls was devoted to teaching them basic knowledge on health and ethics, next to teachings of the Koran. The year 1956 also saw the establishment of the Department of Education. This Department followed the Egyptian education model since it had many cultural and societal similarities. Therefore, almost all textbooks and curricula models were imported from Egypt. Other countries with similar education systems, such as Syria and Lebanon were also contacted. In the same way, many primary and secondary school teachers came from Arab backgrounds, most of them were recruited from Egypt.

Qatar University, the only national higher education institution, opened in 1973. It evolved from colleges for teacher-training. The university has faculties in Islamic studies, social studies, science and the humanities. Just like in other government schools, all classes at the university are gender segregated. This policy follows the strict social codes in Qatar's society.

Studies from 2001, thus before the development of liberal arts education in the country, found that Qatar's education system was 'rigid, outdated and resistant to reform [1] ' since the graduates felt short of employer's expectations and they did not meet academic demands. As mentioned before, Qatar's education system was very much dependent on Islamic teachings, before the development of liberal arts education. Moreover, Qatar's entire societal system was based on these Islamic teachings. The religion is used as a framework to live one's life in the best way possible. This way of life is found through Islamic interpretation, an interpretation often called 'Islamization'. 'Islamization' consists of "mastering modern disciplines as well as Islamic legacy, establishing the specific relevance of Islam to each area of modern knowledge, seeking ways for a creative synthesis between the legacy and modern knowledge, and launching Islamic thought on the trajectory that leads to it to fulfillment of the divine pattern of Allah (…) [2] "

Since Qatar advocates this Islamic vision, it can harm the country's position in the world at large. First of all, this vision promotes the memorization of Koran texts as a form of education. As a result, almost all schools were solely focused on passing on this kind of knowledge . Other subject were neglected or not even taught at all. Since one has to learn the Koran texts by heart, the teaching and learning methods were focused on the process of memorization. This resulted in an educational system in which students were discouraged to take a questioning attitude. After all, the memorization of texts works best when one is not very critical of them. Moreover, the authoritative attitude of the teachers also discouraged taking a critical standpoint. Overall, students were not required to think and learn critical. Starting a discussion for the sake of class participation was out of the question. Consequently, the education system was very passive since the teacher was the only one who was allowed to ask questions. As Charles E Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon nicely puts it: "students learned beautiful classical Arabic, but they had no experience with questions like 'What do you think the author meant by that?' or 'Do you agree or disagree? [3] '.

These factors were responsible for the negative findings of the 2001 studies, hence Qatar was in much need of an educational reform. The country found its preferred educational model in the liberal arts system.

Liberal Arts Education and its Traditions

Liberal arts education originated in Greece and was further developed in Rome. With liberal is meant the freedom of the mind. Later centuries saw the rise of liberal education in European universities. This evolved from the adding of new subjects such as languages and philosophy to the academic curriculum. The curricula and educational goals began to change during the Industrial Revolution. There was a growing demand of practical/ 'useful education'. Nowadays, liberal arts education includes variations on courses in languages, history, geography, philosophy, literature, mathematics and science. Many western universities use the liberal arts education model. However, the United States may be held responsible for perfecting it. The country has set up separate liberal arts colleges and honor programs, all of which are devoted to the core of the liberal arts system. This core is the mandatory set of courses which all students have to take. These courses are often part of the science and humanities departments since social science is the most popular out of all departments and fields.

Much criticism on liberal arts education is focused on the idea that students should learn a specialized field of expertise so that they have a better position in the competitive labor market. This harms the classical foundations of the liberal arts system, since students are required to broaden their curriculum as much as possible in order to be successful later in life. Nevertheless, critics say that liberal arts education is less challenging and difficult than a system which is focused on specialized fields or 'useful' subjects. They claim that liberal arts education is irrelevant in the modern world since it very much relies on a very specialized workforce.

Supporters of liberal arts education put emphasis on the fact that it enhances students' ability to think critically and clearly. Students are able to organize knowledge and to articulate ideas. The education model provides a broad spectrum of reality with its multidisciplinary approach which opens up new thoughts and viewpoints. Moreover, students become culturally and intellectually flexible since they are motivated to use their full potential.

Despite the criticism on liberal arts education and its clash with Islamic principles, it is likely to remain the preferred education model of the American universities in Education City. Most professors in Education City enjoyed their student years in a liberal arts environment. A majority went to liberal arts colleges, or followed honor programs. As a result, the teaching methods at the universities are deeply rooted in the liberal tradition. This was something unknown to Qatari education, but it has been proven successful by the sheer amount of applications the universities have to process every single year. Nonetheless, the universities remain loyal to their very American like competitive selection process since they only offer 300 first year places among them.

The American universities' teaching methods are focused on starting discussions among students and to engage in active class participation. Students are required to take responsibility for their own learning process. This includes much reading, time management, asking critical questions, and engaging in student-teacher discussions. Native students who attend the universities are very positive towards these teaching methods. For example, Ibrahim al-Derbasti, Qatari student at the University of Georgetown. He took a course on "The Problem of God". The different nationalities in the course and the active discussions made it "amazing". He states: "we talked about the difference between faith and religion. I had lived in Houston for four years, but I never understood the Trinity. Now I get it. Well, I don't really get how Jesus is the son of God, but I understand the idea [4] "

The only major problem the Education City universities face is getting the right number and mix of faculty members. The Qatar state already offers free housing, bonus pay and big tax advantages to faculty members in order to solve this problem. Unfortunately, still few professors are willing to move to Qatar. Consequently, many schools are very dependent on 'fly-bys'. Fly-bys are American professors who only come for three or four weeks to teach a course. According to Dr. Antonio M Gotto Jr., dean of Weil Cornell Medical School in New York, "we have a half a dozen faculty who moved to Qatar, and thirty or forty who go for a couple of weeks. We are trying to recruit as many faculty as possible who will stay over here.

While the Qatar branches have a natural attraction to certain professors - Texas A&M's petroleum engineers, say, or Georgetown's experts of Middle Eastern politics, the Gulf does not interest everyone [5] ". Therefore, "you don't get the full range of faculty here [6] ", as stated by Lynn Carter, computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon. He continues "You get a lot of people at the end of their careers. It's not good for young faculty with mortgages and young kids and tenure hopes. Coming to Qatar, where you don't have graduate students ad research grants, does you no good for getting tenure"

Liberal Arts and the Globalization of Qatar

The development of Education City is part of globalization, in the academic sense. Academic globalization is a highly debated issue regarding the identity of higher education. Themes included in these debates are centered around the utilitarian v. liberal approach of universities.

The utilitarian approach or the 'useful' approach as used earlier, is focused on the market forces and costs. In other words, the economy and job market are the most important topics in education systems. Supporters of this viewpoint state that universities should change their strategies and goals since the society is already focused on professional training, business-funded research and marketization. By educating students in this way, they are better qualified for the global workforce.

Critics of the utilitarian approach state that students should never become a victim of the market, where technology and the prestige attached to a university degree are the only reasons for the existence of university education. They insist that one should move away from a customer-oriented approach or as Charles Larkin, research associate at Trinity College of the University of Dublin, says it: "those engaged in education must avoid being turned into mere servants of the market (…) [7] ". After all, educational values lie at the heart of a modern functioning university. These values consist of scholarship, research, learning that is not solely focused on one profession, and teaching students the relations between various approaches. In this way, liberal arts students learn to be aware of the larger significance of things. This makes them much more valuable than students with specialized education since they often have very narrow viewpoints.

The debates between a utilitarian approach and a liberal approach are also being held in Education City. The local pragmatists emphasize on the importance of industrial and economic developments in the country. The country needs highly specialized professionals in order for the Qatarization process to be successful. Another argument put forward is that job opportunities for liberal arts graduates are uncertain in Qatar because the country is rapidly developing heavy industry. This argument is also supported by Dr. Thani of the Qatar Foundation. He says: "personally, I like what the liberal arts do in the United States, but if you look at what our country needs right now, we need people trained in oil and gas areas, we need doctors, we need media, so those are the programs we are bringing in [8] ". These developments in the heavy industry also less motivates students to take courses in the humanities department, because this department is seen as less prestigious and useful than other departments. Students are under the impression that humanities graduates cannot end-up with high-status jobs, the kinds of jobs which are very important to Qataris. Another factor which contributes to difficulties regarding the acceptance of liberal arts education in Qatar is the fact that it clashes too much with Islamic education.

These critiques on Qatar's liberal arts education harms the idea that this education model is able to provide well-rounded students. These kinds of students are considered to be better future employees and citizens. Furthermore, this education system is a perfect advocate of Qatar's multicultural society. This is especially important since Qatar can benefit from better communications across cultures already located in the country or planning on coming to the country. At this moment, half of the liberal arts students are Qataris, but the Foundation promotes the initiative to get more non-Qatari students to Education City. I.e. the Foundation's residences are home to more than sixty nationalities.


This essay provided a historical, cultural and social background of the development of liberal arts education in Qatar. All in all, the future of this system in Qatar remains unclear. Education City can be considered a success, but it still faces many obstacles. First of all, the country's conservative nature which is incompatible with liberal arts teachings. Secondly, the widespread belief that western liberal arts education tries to destroy the local education system. Thus, liberal arts is seen as a threat to Qatar's society instead of an opportunity.

The high speed of the educational reforms can be seen as the most dangerous to the development of liberal arts education. Qatari's are focused on instant gratification, however, education reforms are not able to evoke immediate results. Changes need time, but it is highly unlikely that Education City will be given enough time to use its full potential.

However, the negative signs can be outweighed by positive ones. The universities in Education City bring a multicultural factor to Qatar's society. Qatari students often travel to the main campuses in the United States. This enables them to interact with and respond to new viewpoints. American students are also able to spend a semester in Education City which further promotes multiculturalism. In addition, the liberal arts system gives students the opportunity to think critical. Topics that are dealt with in class helps students to broaden their view on themselves and their society or culture. This is supported by the notion that students discuss others' viewpoints as well as discussing their own opinion on the subject matter. Something which was deemed unimportant in the traditional Islamic education system.

All in all, Education City is an ambitious project. The problems that it faces could be solved by offering more opportunities to discuss the differences between traditional education and liberal arts education. In this way. Qataris can come to realize that the western education is not a threat to traditional values. Moreover, the different types of knowledge from these education systems can be put to use in the development of an all-compassing education system. This system is adapted to local needs. Thus it acknowledges traditional Islamic values, it takes into account the country's economic wealth and it recognizes the importance of academic research. This dialogue between societies and cultures can make the education system in Qatar one of the best in the world, if not the best.