February 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 2

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International Perspectives

The Growing Presence of Social Science in Qatar


Jon T. Crist, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

I moved to Doha, Qatar, in the summer of 2008 after spending 15 years in the policy think-tank community in Washington, DC (administering the fellowship programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace). Eager for a posting abroad and a return to the university and scholarly pursuits, albeit as an administrator, I was delighted to take up a position as an assistant dean advising students and working with faculty to support the curriculum of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (GU SFS) in Qatar. The GU SFS branch campus in Doha is part of the unique and innovative experiment in higher education known as Education City.

Sub-contracting Higher Education

While many American campuses have begun to look overseas to expand their markets and brands, Education City is distinctive. The linchpin of the operation is the Qatar Foundation—the principal institution through which Qatar advances its ambitious national goal of transforming its economy from dependence on natural gas to a knowledge-based economy.


Doha, Qatar

Essentially, Qatar Foundation has created a university by sub-contracting the constituent schools to top institutions from the United States and Europe. These institutions replicate their main campus curricula and have autonomy in all important areas of academic management, including faculty and staff hires, admissions, research, and publication. In addition to Georgetown’s program, Cornell University runs a medical school, Carnegie Mellon runs the business school, Texas A&M the engineering school, Virginia Commonwealth University a school of graphic arts and fashion design, Northwestern University a school of journalism and communications, HEC-Paris offers programs in executive management, and University College of London, the latest entrant into the community, offers graduate programs in museum studies and archeology. Qatar Foundation also directly runs the Qatar Faculty for Islamic Studies and has recently formed an entity called Hamad bin Khalifa University, named after the Emir of Qatar, which sponsors its own interdisciplinary programs that link up related aspects of the expertise represented in the faculties of the branch campuses.

Not surprising of a monarchy, social science research would not happen in Doha but for the patronage of the regime, which funds all institutions of higher education in Doha. Founded in 1978, Qatar University, the national university of the country and the only indigenous institution, offers a liberal arts curriculum, including a sociology major for undergraduates.

Women in Sociology

Reflecting local mores, the campus is sex-segregated, although there are exceptions in certain programs and classes. For example, the sociology major is for female students only; males can minor in sociology but will be taught in separate classes. The sociology program also offers a major in Social Work for females and a Psychology major for both sexes. The Department’s most distinguished graduate, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Thani, is a product of this program and next to her husband, the Emir of Qatar, is Qatar’s most visible figure to the outside world. As chairperson of Qatar Foundation, she has been a forceful advocate for education and social reform in Qatar and on the world stage (especially in her capacity as the UN Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education).

Two years ago, Qatar University opened up the first survey research institution in Qatar—the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI). The result of collaboration with the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, SESRI’s permanent research staff conducts basic research in the social sciences based on rigorous national random sampling techniques. It also sub-contracts its services to the government, corporate sector, and academics. For instance, Northwestern University in Qatar recently contracted with SESRI to replicate the annual World Values Study in Qatar for the first time. (Georgetown University is also affiliated with this project.)

The other significant contribution of the regime to the social sciences in Qatar is found in the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF). The QNRF was established in 2005 in close consultation with the Qatar-RAND Policy Institute, a branch office of RAND specializing in educational policy. (QRPI has also been a major advisor to the regime in its sweeping efforts to reform the K-12 school system and Qatar University as well as the founding of Education City and the adoption of a national research strategy to support national development.)

Funding Research

RAND looked to the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a model for QNRF. Since its inception, QNRF has disbursed more than $550 million in funds to support research projects, many involving collaborations with top research institutions in the United States and Europe. Qatar’s recent adoption of a Qatar National Research Strategy, while importantly focused on national development goals, is clearly meant to solidify Qatar’s efforts to become a major global research hub—a development path that has offered substantial returns for other small countries and city-states including Taiwan, Singapore, and Luxembourg. With the Emir’s decree in 2009 that 2.8 percent of Qatar’s gross domestic product shall be devoted to research purposes, Qatar is well poised to become a major player in global research in the years to come.

For reasons that are not hard to imagine, the lion’s share of funding awards go to topics involving technology innovation in the oil and gas sector, medical research, engineering and computer/IT applications. However, social science and the humanities have been identified as a core priority for Qatar’s research funding strategy, and while the overall percentage of awards is small in comparison, the percentage continues to grow.

Like NSF, QNRF relies on a network of thousands of experts and scholars for the review of proposals. This improves the quality of decisions made about funding, but it also, in part, results in a measure of independence in the range of subjects reflected in the list of awardees. At my own institution, we have had projects funded on some contentious and controversial topics, including the situation of migrant laborers in Qatar and the Gulf, the impact of human rights treaty regimes in the Gulf, the assessment of interfaith dialogue projects in Doha, and Arabic-language instruction in Qatar, a hot-button issue because of the increasing signs of decline in the quantity and quality of Arabic among Qatari citizens in particular. (I am a current recipient of two QNRF awards—one for a student project on assessing Education City’s sustainability programs and the other a large international project on higher education development and scientific productivity, with a project team of educational sociologists led by David Baker at Pennsylvania State University and including researchers in Germany, Luxembourg, and Japan.)

There is still much room for growth in professional sociology and the social sciences in Qatar. But there are positive signs as the amount of funded research on social issues in Qatar increases, examples of policy-relevant social science research accumulate, and as the number of sociologists in the city continues to grow.

Submit Ideas for the International Perspectives Column

Footnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, “International Perspectives.” Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Johanna Olexy (olexy@asanet.org).

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