What if there were a small city whose entire purpose for existing was to promote education for an entire country?
Scratch that...an entire region?
Well, on the outskirts of Doha, the capital of Qatar, is Education City, possibly the beginning of just such a place.
Founded ten years ago, the city houses six satellite campuses of leading western universities. Located just kilometers from Doha's bustling city center, it aims to be the center of educational excellence in the Arab world - a city that attracts hundreds of the Arab world's most promising students to cultivate future leaders. Prominent professionals and politicians frequent these campuses to lecture and participate in one of the Arab world's most ambitious educational experiments.
(To watch a short video about the latest event - a five-day design conference about collaboration and design - scroll down).
Although not new (details of its history can be found here), the pace at which the Education City seems to be evolving, advancing its curriculum and staging celebrity-filled events has never been as tenacious as today.
Two days ago Northwestern University formally marked the opening of its campus in Doha. Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, who is determined to forge a new path for Qatar and the region that prioritizes the importance of education as a foundation for a successful society, is chairperson of Qatar Foundation, the organization behind Education City.
"Through education, through the pursuit and attainment of knowledge, all things become possible," Sheikha Mozah is quoted on the homepage of a new Web site promoting Qatar Foundation's latest project.
The World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) is Qatar Foundation's latest initiative which hopes to create a new international multi-disciplinary platform to shape education models of the 21st century. Scheduled to take place in Doha this September, the forum has invited renowned education experts to debate alongside decision makers from from governments, businesses, civil society and international institutions to mobilize global networks to address major educational challenges.
The idea that education is the foundation to liberalization and a sure way to guarantee the prosperity of a state and its citizens has gained momentum in the Middle East as oil-rich countries compete to pump money into ambitious educational development projects.
In the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi and NYU have collaborated on a deal to create NYU Abu Dhabi, a liberal arts campus. In Dubai, Michigan State has established a world-class research, teaching and scholarship facility. In Saudi Arabia, KAUST, an international, graduate-level university is sprouting up with the hopes of inspiring a new age of scientific achievement in the conservative country. Set to open this year, the school has teamed up with two notoriously liberal universities, Stanford and University of California Berkeley, to contribute faculty members to develop a world-class curriculum for master's and doctoral programs in this conservative country.
But Doha may take the cake since Virginia Commonwealth University, Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M, Carengie Mellon, Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and now Northwestern are all collaborating with Qatar Foundation to run branch campuses in Education City.
This spirit of collaboration was manifest at a design conference held earlier this month at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. The five day design conference known as Mousharaka - the Arabic word for collaboration - featured design professionals, filmmakers, and students from across the world, including Mira Nair, the famed Hollywood filmmaker.
Watch highlights from the event as students and professionals, including Mira Nair, discuss the promise of Mousharaka:
On the drive back from Education City to Doha, it is hard to miss the dozens of signs that line the Corniche reading "Hand in hand for Education...For Qatar!" printed on top of a photo of an adult's hand guiding a child's hand as he writes with a pen.
Sure, the glitz, glamour and general over-the-top approach that these oil-rich countries have become famous for is still visible in Doha. Just a few blocks after the banners advertising Qatar's education initiative are enormous billboards reminding drivers that "Venice is now in Doha!" - referring to Villagio Mall, a gaudy megamall designed to give shoppers the idea that they are in Venice, equipped with an indoor Venetian style canal, gondolas and sky-blue and twilight black painted ceilings (not to mention the ice-skating rink which while oddly placed, is still a less pronounced and somewhat more practical version of Dubai's indoor ski slopes).
But in Doha, the emphasis on culture and education is manifested in a series of initiatives launched this year such as the arrival of the Tribeca Film Festival in November, the birth of a national symphony orchestra and the Museum of Islamic Art, one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Islamic art.
With such an emphasis on cultural and educational institutions, Doha cannot be the new Dubai. Can it? Well, maybe on the outside. Its true that it has the overworked and underpaid migrant workers, the burgeoning skyline littered with cranes, the sandy desert dunes, the luxurious hotels (including the first W hotel in the Middle East), and even its own man-made island shaped like a palm tree, but Doha seems to have a key ingredient that many would argue Dubai lacks - depth, or at least the desire for it.
As the global financial crisis halts development projects across the region in their tracks, in Qatar, universities, hotels and office towers are still being built by the throngs of overworked and underpaid migrant workers at a steady pace. Moreover, the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who staged a bloodless coup in 1995, has since been shaping Qatar as a relatively progressive political powerhouse, if a controversial one.
Perhaps aware, now more than ever, of the problems facing Dubai as a result of its frenetic pace of growth and development, Qatar is investing in its education system, its health care system and in sports (it launched its official bid for the World Cup, after an unsuccessful bid to host the Olympic games) in ways that differ from the Dubai model.
Of course there are those who say that you can't just import universities, a curriculum, and professors and expect a university to succeed in the east the way it does in the west. Or that these countries may be buying the brands, but not the quality of education. But after visiting Education City, having conversations with some students, and sitting in on a Q&A event between Seymour Hersh and students at Northwestern university it is hard not to conclude that in a lot of ways Doha may be playing most of their cards right.
If we see the glass as half full instead of half empty, it is plausible, maybe inevitable that universities, professors, students and curricula coming from the west, may bring with them ideas and a general openness that this traditionally conservative and extremely young region may benefit from as it modernizes.
If liberalism arrives through educational institutions funded, framed and fixed as part of Qatar's foundation (the actual name of the foundation behind Education City itself) it may facilitate a more organic shift towards sustainable modernity that is in harmony with Qatar's rich traditions where collaborations and cooperation between east and west is natural necessary and welcomed.