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Budget cuts in Qatar bite 9, March 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Qatar flag from the water

That most ministries in Qatar are facing significant budget cuts is relatively old news. The bean-counters in Qatar were expecting a dip in the oil price and a rise in their infrastructure-driven expenditure since at least early-2014. Consequently, budget paring-back was always a central priority of the new administration. I’ve always believed that the new lot, on the first day in power in mid-2013, skipped merrily into the Diwan, had a look at the books and were somewhat horrified by what they saw – namely unchallenged expenditure.

Qatar is a young state with an emerging bureaucracy. Spending has seldom been managed in what would be considered in a modern state a methodical, measured manner. Instead, the sense was of ministers doing their best, of course, but splurging cash left, right, and centre according to their best guesses as to what the Emir wanted. Don’t forget that under the Prime Ministership of Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani (2007-2013), Qatar scarcely operated with a Prime Minister given how many hats he wore: also Foreign Minister (1992-2013), also chief of the Sovereign Wealth Fund (QIA), also Chairman of the national airline, and also Qatar’s dominant businessman.

So the new administration set about rectifying the fiscal situation, driven by a belief that income would plateau somewhat. But now that the oil price has dropped off the proverbial cliff, things seem to be even stricter.

But, as so often in Qatar, decisions are being made that just make little sense. A British science programme aimed solely at low-achieving Qatari male-only schools – in other words, an aim that could not possibly be more on target for the QF’s basic goal and even a goal that has become yet more important for the new administration – was scrapped. And how much is QF going to make by kicking out (albeit temporarily) students from their dorms? The self-defeating logic of Qatar never ceases to amaze.

 

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Executive MBA to begin in Doha, Qatar 6, July 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Paris’ celebrated business school, HEC, is to open a campus in Doha, Qatar. They plan to teach at least an MBA as well as an executive MBA.

They will not open their campus in Qatar’s Education City or indeed be directly under their aegis. They are the first business school to open under Qatar Foundation’s Management, Education and Research Centre (QF-Merc) and will be situated, I believe, in or near Doha’s downtown, nearer their prospective clientele.

QF-Merc hopes to attract other business schools too.

The FT article points out the HEC Paris is not the first business school to open in the region. London Business School and City University’s Cass school have programmes in Dubai and INSTEAD is based in Abu Dhabi.

At the moment there is a lack of post-graduate study in Doha. Given the demand and the relative costs of companies being forced to send their employees to Europe for courses or degrees for their continued development, HEC Paris has, I believe, essentially a license to print money in Doha. The first institution to offer Masters degrees related to the oil and gas industry will similarly make a fortune too.

Saudi’s new hi-tech University: both too much and not enough 25, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
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One advantage of covering the Gulf region is that there is rarely a dull day. The sheer pace of development means that more or less every week there is some new mega-project of some description announced, unveiled or – in these more constrained times – cancelled.

This week saw the opening of Saudi Arabia’s newest University. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), based north of Jeddah, is ground braking. Not only will it be the first public space in the Kingdom where men and women are allowed to mingle freely, women can drive and do not have to wear the Hijab but also this University aspires to remain outwith the sphere of influence of the clerics. Whilst this is undoubtedly a reformist move and may even be described as somewhat revolutionary, there are, as ever, caveats.

First, whilst the rights established here for women are a huge leap forward, at the moment only 15% of the student body is female; it is a tentative start. However, this percentage seems certain to increase. Female students across the region are outstripping their male rivals for the top prizes in just about all subjects. Unless there is some draconian policy of keeping the ratio of male to females as it is now, it is sure to change.

Second, whilst at the moment, the religious establishment appear to have been successfully repelled from interference in KAUST’s practices, one must wonder exactly how long this will last. This University, where the feared religious police are not allowed to operate, will be the beacon issue for conservatives. Whilst to some the fact that a woman can drive and can mix freely with men might seem to be a trivial matter, this is a giant step forward for such a conservative Kingdom. Indeed, although there has been a lot of pressure to drag Saudi’s educational doctrine and practices out of the dark ages in recent years, the conservative elements are well anchored in society and flex their muscles from time to time. For example, they forced the cancellation of the Jeddah International Film Festival in December of last year; cinemas, of course, being mostly illegal in Saudi Arabia.

What is worse for those looking or hoping for a less staunchly conservative, Wahhabi or puritanical Saudi Arabia is that the man that most experts believe will take over from the 85-year-old ailing King Abdullah, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, is as squarely conservative as they come. His views towards political opening, woman’s rights and Muslim minorities are uncompromising and staunchly conservative. More to the point, his support for the religious police is reputed to be strong.

Under his watch, unless he performs a 100% about turn, he cannot be expected to carry on implementing any reforms in the Kingdom. On the contrary, pessimists fear that he may seek to roll back some of the reformist gains. If this were the case, then KAUST’s liberal policies would surely be the prime target.

All this is in stark contrast to similar openings and announcements in Qatar. They too realise that they need to educate their young people to a high degree so that they can take part in their economy and, to put it bluntly, not be solely a burden on society. Their flagship project (imaginatively called Education City) will be, like KAUST, full of state-of-the-are facilities when it is completed. This includes the Sidra Medical & Research Centre, which was funded with a whopping $7.9bn endowment from Qatar’s philanthropic Qatar Foundation. This facility joins a host of other Western Universities on the same campus including Georgetown School of Foreign Service and Cornell Medical School. One key attribute to note is that these establishments have not lowered their entry standards for the Qatari market. This is, of course, unlike so many other Universities in the Gulf where entry standards are massively diluted and lowered.

Yet, this is something that can be done in Qatar. Such a system would be much more difficult to implement in Saudi or, for example, Kuwait. In these countries where religious or political pressures alter the educational curriculum, education itself suffers massively. A recent UNESCO survey highlighted in the Daily Star has Saudi Arabia down in 93rd place (out of only 129) for overall educational quality. Considering just how rich a country Saudi Arabia is, this is a shameful statistic. In Kuwait, to give a more concrete example, students cannot be taught about the Holocaust in any meaningful way; teachers are proscribed from doing so. Yet, these very same students could easily sit down in an exam, set in the UK, and be asked about this. This is but one example of a plethora of minor and major instances of political or religious interference that directly affects the pupils.

Saudi Arabia (or Kuwait, if their Parliament could stop arguing for any length of time) can invest as much as they want in Higher Education. They can build the swankiest campuses, (try to) hire the best scientists and faculty, buy the latest equipment and give it all to students for free, but if they do not attempt some kind of reform in the earlier stages of education, the latent potential of their students and the facilities will never be fulfilled.