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Crisis in Qatar

A diplomatic rift could have outsize impacts for international education, though university officials say it's still unclear what long-term impacts might be.

June 6, 2017
 

The decision by five Arab nations to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar and in some cases recall their citizens will have implications for branch campuses of foreign universities based there. Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all said Monday they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar, and all of those countries except Egypt have ordered their citizens to leave Qatar, as The New York Times reported -- raising questions of whether students from those countries enrolled in Qatar's foreign branch campuses will have their degree studies interrupted, and of whether Qatar's prized image as a relatively stable and secure destination for study and research in the Middle East could be under threat.

Based on what the Saudi and U.A.E. governments describe as Qatar’s support for terror and sectarian groups intent on destabilizing countries in the region, Qatar’s Arab neighbors have also closed off their airspace to Qataris and prohibited citizens of the Persian Gulf country from passing through their land and sea territories. The Republic of Maldives, a nation made up of about 1,200 islands in South Asia, also announced its decision to sever relations with Qatar on Monday.

The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the actions taken against it by fellow Gulf countries as "unjustified" and as being "based on baseless and unfounded allegations." The ministry pledged "that these measures taken against the state of Qatar will not affect the normal course of life of the citizens and residents of the state and that the Qatari government will take all necessary measures to ensure this and to thwart attempts to influence and harm the Qatari society and economy." Already international media outlets have reported that Qataris were emptying supermarket shelves in anticipation of possible shortages of food, for which the nation is heavily dependent on imports.

An embargo on tiny, oil-rich Qatar could have outsize impacts on the international education world. Numerous well-known U.S. universities -- Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth Universities -- have campuses in the Education City complex in the capital city of Doha that have been financed by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. Officials at some U.S. universities with campuses in Qatar said Monday that they were monitoring the situation and that summer classes and other operations are continuing.

Alan Cubbage, the vice president for university relations at Northwestern, which has a branch of its journalism and communication school in Qatar, said in an emailed statement that the campus has “fewer than 20 students from the affected Gulf countries who are scheduled to be enrolled in the fall 2017 semester.” A summer program enrolls about 90 students, only two of whom, Cubbage said, come from the affected countries.

“Northwestern University in Qatar remains open, and summer classes are ongoing,” Cubbage said. “We are keeping students, faculty and staff at Northwestern University in Qatar informed, and university officials continue to be regularly in touch with the appropriate government agencies in Qatar and the U.S. The safety and security of our students, faculty and staff are top priorities of the university.”

Virginia Commonwealth University, which operates an art and design-focused campus in Qatar, reported that its campus there enrolls about 365 students representing 41 nationalities and employs 63 faculty representing 15 nationalities. Michael Porter, a university spokesman, said two of 28 students enrolled for the summer session hold passports from countries that have severed relations with Qatar.

“It is too early to know the real impact on VCU Qatar, including travel plans of our students, faculty and staff,” Porter said via email. “We are in summer session right now and operating on a normal schedule. The leadership of VCU's campus in Doha is in close contact with the U.S. Embassy, deans of the other universities in Education City, Qatar Foundation officials and Global Rescue for any contingency planning regarding the diplomatic situation in the Gulf region. We are closely monitoring the situation and will advise as the ramifications become more clear.”

Texas A&M’s engineering campus in Education City enrolls 543 students, including 497 undergraduates, of whom 45 percent are Qatari. "We are in touch with our students, faculty and staff in Qatar, and our branch campus is operating as normal,” Texas A&M’s president, Michael K. Young, said in a one-sentence statement.

“One of the goals of the campuses in the first place was, I think, to appeal to Arab students who for family or for other reasons wouldn’t want to go to the U.S. to study; they actually could go to a U.S. campus in the region. Closing off that avenue could be a bit of a hit for the universities,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert on the Gulf region and a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“The other thing is just the impact of the regional instability, the message or the signal it sends out that Qatar is not a safe place. That may impact not just students from the region who may not be allowed by their government to go to Qatar but students from around the world,” Coates Ulrichsen continued.

“It’s not necessarily going into a war zone, but you’re going into a part of the world where tension is incredibly high. That may begin to hit on the reputation of Qatar as a relatively safe place in a volatile part of the world.”

“They have two months' breathing space,” Coates Ulrichsen said of Qatar's foreign universities. “If it begins to hit students who have already accepted positions to begin in August, if it becomes harder for the campuses in the Gulf to recruit, to retain faculty who may be looking to get out while they can, this could all feed into more problems the longer it goes on.”

Among other U.S. universities with campuses in Qatar, Cornell, which has a medical school there, declined to comment on the diplomatic rift. Carnegie Mellon, which has a campus with business and information technology programs in Education City, said it has 24 students from some of the affected countries. "There is no summer session in Qatar, though at this time it is unclear what the long-term effects will be," a university spokeswoman said in written responses to questions. "We’ll continue to monitor the situation and confer with the U.S. State Department, and CMU will offer any necessary assistance to any members of our community who may be affected."

Outside the U.S., at least two Canadian higher education institutions, the University of Calgary and the College of the North Atlantic, have campuses in Qatar, as do two U.K.-based institutions, University College London and the University of Aberdeen (the latter of which announced the opening of its Qatar campus in April); a French university, HEC Paris; and a Dutch institution, Stenden University of Applied Sciences. Calgary said in a statement that “it is business as usual" at its Qatar campus.

“We are currently monitoring the situation in Qatar and have been in contact with all University of Calgary in Qatar employees,” the university said in its statement. “At this point, while this situation is of political and diplomatic concern, there has been no indication that there is any increased security risk to our staff or students. The Canadian Embassy has not advised Canadians to do anything differently today, and so we are advising our staff and students that it is business as usual.”

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