In recent years, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (‘GCC’) – a trade bloc of six petroleum-endowed monarchies in the Middle East – have been splashing the education sector cash in a hitherto unprecedented manner. Qatar has erected Education City, a sprawling meta-campus hosting no less than eight branch campuses; the United Arab Emirates (‘UAE’) is importing a Guggenheim, a Louvre and a Sorbonne in an attempt to turn it into a regional cultural capital; and even Saudi Arabia has allocated tens of billions of dollars towards edtech megaprojects such as the science and technology university KAUST.
But it remains to be seen precisely what these investments are designed to achieve, or whether they are the best way of attaining goals which are often vaguely defined; here, the example of these nations’ efforts in football is instructive. Unbeknown to the vast majority of football fans around the world, since the 1970s GCC countries have spent huge amounts of money trying to elevate their standards of soccer. Many of the sport’s most eminent coaches have been hired at unfathomable expense towards realising this goal; incredibly, a single team from the region, the UAE, has vaunted Carlos Alberto Parreira, Mario Zagallo, Valery Lobanovsky and Tomislav Ivić as its head trainers. World-class stadiums and facilities have been constructed with no expense spared. Financial incentives which would shock even many European fans jaded with the fiscal surrealism of ‘modern football’ have been dangled in front of players with even a hint of promise.
Yet the results have been beyond mediocre. With the partial exception of Saudi Arabia at the 1994 World Cup, no GCC national team has come close to bothering the world’s footballing elite. This is mainly because the big structural problem facing Gulf Cooperation Council teams – tiny populations and therefore talent pools – mean that serious attempts to be a big player in the soccer domain make little if no sense. At club level, GCC teams have a significantly better record in continental-level competition, but the domestic product is mostly characterised by empty stadiums in which lavishly-paid players – many of whom are non-GCC nationals looking for one last bumper payday – amble around in the stifling heat.
The same pattern seems to be repeating itself in higher education. Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council are splurging untold millions and billions on bringing in some of the best institutions and professors that money can buy. They are generously subsidising cohorts of students – most of whom are non-GCC nationals and are unlikely to stay much beyond their degree programmes, particularly given the dim-to-non-existent prospects of naturalisation. The actual benefits to the Gulf Cooperation Council itself – particularly when measured proportionate to the vast sums being outlayed – could end up resembling something of a mirage.
As the importance of higher education as both a seriously valuable export and an essential component of soft power is becoming ever-clearer, a number of countries which are not known for being major tertiary education players have set themselves ambitious goals for excelling in this section. Nations such as Russia (Project 5-100), China (Project 211), Qatar (Education City) and Saudi Arabia (KAUST) are lavishing billions of dollars on new and existing learning facilities in the hope of climbing the international education rankings and becoming desirable destinations for the students of the future.
However, can these efforts actually work? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana believe that heavily statist countries need to address the following challenges to ensure that their investments bear fruit:
1. Basic Freedoms. Foreign nationals who have academic appointments in countries with patchy human rights records need to be sure they are not going to get locked up or worse for innocuous actions relating to freedom of speech and similar rights. They should feel at least at ease as they do in their home countries. Amongst other things, this is essential to extracting the highest performance out of knowledge workers.
2. Accepting Diversity. Part of accepting diversity in any context is respecting the fact that there will be people who think and behave completely differently from you. While this does not compel you to agree with them – a distinction which some prominent contemporary thinkers struggle with – it should inspire university administrators and academics to structure their institutions to encourage the blossoming of new perspectives.
3. Money. In the event that either (or both) of the first two points is just too hard to stomach, most people do have their price. Telephone number salaries and all-expenses-paid scholarships can, do and will attract top talent to your shores. However, without structural reforms, what good these high-profile but ultimately neutered acquisitions will do is anyone’s guess.
The small desert state of Qatar has, until recent years, been almost totally anonymous in terms of its international profile – even to those who keep a keep eye on developments in the Middle East. Trawling through our recollections of all things global, the only reference to Qatar that we at Mediolana can remember coming across before the late 2000s was a clip of the 1992 Gulf Cup of Nations that found its way onto the legendary and much-missed Transworld Sport; a Qatari state television commentator breaking into wild Arabic supplications on the realisation that his team was about to win that tournament for the first time in its history was the limit of our associations with Dawlat Qaṭar.
Fast forward to 2012 and the one thing that can definitively be said about Qatar is that it is ineluctable. Al Jazeera and its sister channel Al Jazeera English have changed popular perceptions of the Middle East forever with their postmodern role in reporting and shaping the numerous revolutions and political shifts across the region, a process which is likely to be ongoing for many years; an audacious and ultimately victorious bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been greeted worldwide with reactions ranging from bemusement to outrage, yet for a country which the vast majority of the world’s population would struggled to locate on a map, perhaps the most important thing is that there is any reaction to it at all.
However, for all the rather public statements of intent emanating from Doha in recent times, the country’s establishment have inaugurated an institution which is likely to engender a low-key but equally profound transformation within Qatar itself: Education City (‘EC’). A giant facility situated at the edge of the Qatari capital, Education City is very much an initiative of the reasonably iconic Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the most prominent of the ruling emir’s three wives: as Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development since 1995, she has overseen the construction and growth of EC, an über-university housing branches of no less than six American colleges as well as outlets of University College London (‘UCL’) and Hautes études commerciales de Paris (‘HEC Paris’).
We at Mediolana have a few ideas as to the precise significance of plonking a mini-Ivy League in the middle of the Arabian desert:
1. Orientation. With some honourable exceptions, the image of most rulers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (‘GCC’) has been simply dreadful from the third quarter of the twentieth century onwards: absolutism, hypocrisy and comedy have featured strongly in the global public’s reading of them. Yet a project such as Education City shows that, in many respects, at least some countries in the GCC have moved from the 1970s and 1980s, when a combination of ludicrous welfarism and North Korea-style personality cults defined this part of the world as much as anything else; while both these elements are still richly in evidence, EC illustrates that one or two regional heads of state are recognising that the future of their countries will increasingly depend on education as much as natural resource endowments.
2. Tactics. The Arab Spring is still causing shockwaves around the MENA region and the world more generally as governments and supranational organisations struggle to react coherently or consistently. Some countries in the region are embracing liberal democracy more fully than most dared to dream; others are sinking huge amounts of money into the standard responses of repression and bribery. But Qatar seems to be plotting a different path altogether: top-down change which anticipates any challenges to the fundamental structure of society and that permits just enough dynamism and liberty to ensure that the country can integrate into the global flow of ideas without too many destabilising ruptures; the Qatari legislative elections, scheduled to take place in 2013, is another example of this path.