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In modernizing Qatar, U.S. universities are being welcomed

DOHA, Qatar—At first glance, Education City doesn't look much like an American university campus: There are palm trees where the ivy-covered Greek columns should be and sun-baked dirt instead of rolling college greens.

But inside modernistic white buildings are pieces of Pittsburgh, Ithaca, N.Y., and other U.S. university towns: fully functioning mini-campuses of four major American educational institutions.

Washington-based Georgetown University, which was founded by Jesuit priests, has been in long-running negotiations to join Carnegie-Mellon, Cornell Medical School, Texas A&M University and Virginia Commonwealth University on the edge of the Arabian peninsula.

"There has been stereotyping (between the Arab and Western worlds). ... We would like to break that. We are showing the best of the American system here," said Dr. Mohammed Fathy Saoud, higher education adviser to the nonprofit Qatar Foundation, which oversees Education City and other projects.

The experiment is unique in several ways. The mini-universities operate without government interference, and natural gas- and oil-rich Qatar pays the bills. Students from Muslim countries will receive degrees just as they would if they graduated on the home campus.

Most classes are co-ed, a rarity in the conservative Persian Gulf.

Throughout much of the Arab world, leaders and citizens have mixed feelings at best about the United States. But Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, has wooed America, partly to cement his country's independence from much larger neighbor and rival Saudi Arabia.

Qatar, which juts into the Persian Gulf from the Saudi east coast, hosts a massive U.S. airbase and the forward operating headquarters of U.S. Central Command.

Sheik Hamad is hardly President Bush's idea of a Muslim democrat. He took power 10 years ago in a bloodless coup.

But since ousting his father, the sheik has modernized and liberalized Qatar. Parliamentary elections are due by mid-2006 under a constitution adopted last year, and the media is relatively free, although no direct criticism of the emir is permitted. Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel best known in the United States for broadcasting Osama bin Laden's videotapes, is based here and subsidized by the royal family.

There appears to be wide support for the changes in Qatar, which practices a relaxed brand of the strict Wahabi sect of Sunni Islam.

Even limited liberalization, however, may make Qatar a target of extremists. In March, Qatar suffered its first terrorist attack in decades. A British citizen who taught English at the Qatar Academy, part of the sprawling Education City complex, was killed.

Qatar Foundation president Charles Young, a former UCLA chancellor, said the reforms undertaken so far may be the easy ones. As their implications—such as greater numbers of unveiled women—become clearer, "there's bound to be a reaction," he said.

Education City, where more than half the students are women, could even be blamed.

Nor is it clear that the reforms being pursued in Qatar, with its vast resources and small, homogenous population, would work in, say, Egypt.

For Qatar, money clearly is no object. With vast offshore natural gas deposits and only 200,000 citizens, it could soon be the richest country, per capita, in the world.

Young knows only that the budget of his foundation, overseen by the emir's wife, is "shy of a billion" dollars and growing rapidly.

The Qataris told Kevin Lamb, who oversees planning for Carnegie-Mellon's building (it now shares space with Cornell) not to worry about financial constraints. "I thought, `I'll never hear that again in my career,'" Lamb said.

The goal is to train citizens to work in professions now dominated by foreigners, and to make Doha a regional educational center, a sort of Boston of the Middle East.

They see it as "a way to turn a non-renewable resource—gas and oil—into a renewable resource, a knowledge society," Young said.

Classes are small, with a focus on quality, not size.

The 2,500-acre Education City complex outside Doha is only 20 percent complete. Plans call for a teaching hospital, convention center, shopping mall, golf course—and more universities.

Inside, the building that houses Cornell and Carnegie-Mellon is like a U.S. college building, only nicer.

Apple computer screens retract James Bond-like into desktops. Cornell students can tap into the university's library in Ithaca, N.Y. Lecture halls have the latest in audiovisual equipment, with microphones and Ethernet ports at every seat.

Only the separate prayer rooms for men and women, and the veils worn by some female students, would seem out of place in the United States.

"Projects of this sort are helping very much to improve the image of the United States in this part of the world," said Anas Abou-Ismal, 19. A first-year pre-med student, he wants to study radiology and space medicine.

Such words might bring smiles from U.S. officials trying to improve America's image among Muslims.

But 20-year-old Aalia al Barwani, from Nigeria, declines to offer an opinion about the United States. Still, she is grateful for the education. "I think we're very spoiled here," she said, adding quickly: "We push it. We take advantage of it."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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