Gulf education hub ‘irreparably damaged’ by Qatar crisis

Branch campuses could be forced out of Doha if diplomatic row is not resolved, experts warn

June 8, 2017
People gather outside a branch of Qatar Airways in the United Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi on June 6 after ban on Qatari flights
Source: Getty

The continuing diplomatic crisis in Qatar will cause “irreparable reputational damage” to the Gulf as a location for university branch campuses, according to an expert on the region.

Qatar has transformed itself as a global education hub in recent years, hosting overseas outposts of 12 international universities, but faces mounting uncertainty after four Arab states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – cut diplomatic ties. They have also moved to isolate Qatar by land, sea and air, accusing it of funding terrorist groups.

Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, said the ongoing crisis would make Qatar and the rest of the Gulf less attractive locations for universities looking to set up overseas. Higher education institutions may open campuses in East Asia instead, he predicted.

“What’s happening in Qatar at the moment will cause irreparable reputational damage for the Gulf States but also the broader region,” Dr Davidson told Times Higher Education. “The Gulf, and in particular Qatar, was regarded as the most stable of all the Middle East states. 

“The beneficiaries from this are probably those East Asian nations that are courting Western branch campuses at the moment, which can make a better case that they are more stable and have a much surer economic footing.”

Dr Davidson said that Qatar may come under pressure from its neighbours to suspend the executive office of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the mother of the current emir, since they regard it as an arm of Qatar's foreign policy. The office runs the Qatar Foundation, which is the principal funder of Education City, located on the outskirts of Doha, where most of the country's branch campuses are located. Six US institutions, including  Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M University, have bases there.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ordered their citizens to leave Qatar, potentially hitting enrolment at branch campuses.

Dr Davidson said that, if the situation worsened, overseas universities would likely “arrive at the logical decision of withdrawing voluntarily”.  

His views were echoed by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, who said that the branch campuses would inevitably be affected if Qatar remained under prolonged economic sanctions.

“The Qatar Foundation…has already encountered significant economic difficulties that have caused several years of pretty hefty budget cuts,” he said. “Should there be further cuts it is not inconceivable universities may begin to reassess the cost-benefit analysis of remaining in Qatar.”

Branch campus expert Jason Lane, vice-provost for academic planning and strategic leadership at the State University of New York, said it was unlikely there would be immediate withdrawals from Qatar, but that the country's reputation had taken a significant hit.

“This rocks their image of being the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East',” he said. “This will certainly make new institutions think twice about operating in Qatar and make existing institutions think carefully about renewing contracts.”

In a statement, the Qatar Foundation said that it was "saddened by current regional developments", but that this would "have no impact on our operations nor our future plans, and we remain committed to developing local, regional and international talent".

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com

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