Since 2000, the largest educational experiment in the Gulf has been taking shape in Education City on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar’s capital.

Eight branches of overseas universities sit alongside think-tanks, the country’s top high school and the offices of al Jazeera’s children’s television channel in an expanding zone seemingly perpetually under construction.

As Gulf states grapple with underemployed national populations and a reliance on imported foreign labour, education has moved to the fore as one of their defining policy conundrums.

Education City, established by Qatar Foundation, will be arguably the defining legacy of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, wife of the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who abdicated in June in favour of their second son, Sheikh Tamim.

The foundation funds a well-established pool of US universities in Qatar, such as Georgetown and Weill Cornell Medical College, focusing on providing undergraduate education for Qataris and other nationalities.

The gas-rich state has pledged to earmark 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product for research and development and also plans to develop postgraduate and research capacities.

University College London Qatar, for example, received its first postgraduate students in 2012. Partnering with the Qatar Museums Authority, the body charged with developing the state’s cultural ambitions, UCL Qatar’s offering centres on archaeology, librarianship, conservation and museum studies.

“We have launched a consultative committee to be sensitive to the needs of Qatar as we develop the programme,” says Anthony Smith, UCL’s vice-provost for education. “The other thing is to strengthen outreach. We want to do our best to support the whole professional population working in these sectors.”

Hamad Bin Khalifa University is an umbrella institution seeking to build on Education City’s growing pool of academic talent to develop research.

One of HBKU’s first projects is a partnership with UCL Qatar on an information and library studies programme, as well as preparation for recent graduates in research methods.

The next move is expected to deliver a master’s programme in energy and resources. “HBKU will offer advanced degrees in areas of particular relevance to Qatar and the region,” says Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, the university’s president. “Graduates will be equipped with high-level skills that they may apply in various sectors, including academic and applied research.”

Better Preparing Qatari youths, as well as students from around the region, remains the focus of the undergraduate universities, however.

While insiders deny there are formal quotas, the average across the schools is a Qatari intake of about 50 per cent, varying according to the course. “There are increasing numbers of Qatari applicants to the Education City universities,” says HBKU’s Dr al-Thani.

Persuading more students to attend will need a further shift in cultural perceptions and better secondary education. Most Qataris still expect cushy government jobs on graduation, but the country hopes to broaden its skills base, so that more are able to compete with expatriates for jobs in the private sector.

One student says many Qataris feel uncomfortable on the campus, where there are few signs in Arabic. But she says the zone has opened doors to better education for the many families in the Arab world who are happy for their sons, but not their daughters, to attend university in the west.

Students who fail to make the grade in academic achievement or English-language skills can attend the academic bridge programme. This prepares those people to come in who are not able to stand toe to toe with the more academically prepared, says Sandra Wilkins, fashion design department chair at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.

VCU has seen the impact the zone has had on employment trends in Qatari society. Ms Wilkins says parents were sceptical about fashion as a career in the school’s early days, but four Qatari-born women were among the first graduating class of 30 at the college.

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