Education: An Early Victim of the Qatar Crisis?

by Jesse Schatz

University faculty and students in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been reeling at the consequences of the ongoing Qatar crisis, fearing the implications of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt’s blockade on Doha for their careers and academic pursuits. Within the first days of the blockade Saudi Arabia and Bahrain recalled 12 and 11 nationals, respectively, who held faculty positions at Qatar’s universities. Officials in Doha remain adamant, however, that they will not force any faculty to leave, a decision that has allowed 226 Egyptian university faculty and staff to remain in the emirate. Given that universities in Qatar are on summer break, students have yet to be largely affected. But the blockading countries have recalled students that elected to stay in Doha for the summer term.

Caught up in this geopolitical crisis, a host of educational institutions, including American university branch campuses, are increasingly concerned about the possible effects of the blockade. Although largely comprised of American, British and French citizens, whom the ban does not directly affect, university faculty are concerned about their future in Qatar. Qatari officials insist that American universities will be unaffected, but the deployment of analysts from Global Rescue (an international crisis management firm) has only raised the anxiety levels.

Restricting Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati students from attending Qatari Universities, and Qatari students from academic institutions in the three Persian Gulf countries blockading Qatar, will further isolate Qatar from the rest of the region and upset the cosmopolitan exchange of knowledge and ideas that sustains these international universities in Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. Additionally, from Qatar’s vantagepoint, this restriction of knowledge and the sequestering of talent away from Doha threatens the technological advancement Qatar needs to fully transition to a “knowledge economy,” a task in which research-universities play an integral part.

The National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) of Qatar has appealed to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to intervene. It has submitted to the UN body a report that accuses the three GCC states taking action Doha of committing injustices against Qatari students and “serious violations of a range of civil, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to education.”

The report alleges 85, 29, and 25 violations against Qatari students in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, respectively, since the ongoing crisis erupted last month. The NHRC chairman, who filed this report with UNESCO, told al-Jazeera that these violations of students’ rights to an education included “preventing them from taking final exams, withholding certificates of graduation, closing their educational accounts and arbitrarily terminating their registration without giving reasons.” Accusing a fellow GCC member of failure to protect human rights is uncharted territory for the Persian Gulf’s bloc of Arab monarchies, which typically take a collective approach to defending the others from such accusations.

Compatible with the missions of GCC states to diversify their economies away from their hydrocarbon sectors, each member has taken part, albeit to varying degrees, in developing their higher educational systems. The thinking is that the push to strengthen universities in the GCC will simultaneously train these six countries’ citizens in skills that can produce profitable technological advancements for their economies and reduce reliance on foreign workers. Qatar’s Education City serves as a model for the other five GCC members in terms of attracting renowned academics and students from all over the West, the Arab world, and other regions.

Although protecting their citizens’ rights to obtain an education would help the GCC states achieve their economic diversification goals, the Qatar crisis has clearly prompted the Saudi and UAE governments to violate this right of their citizens for political purposes. If officials in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh continue such restrictions on GCC nationals’ right to an education throughout the duration of what could easily be a prolonged stalemate, these countries will bear costs. Over time, such costs will be measured in what could have been a more educated citizenry with the skills that are required for making the GCC’s economies knowledge-based and free of their current addictions to oil and gas. Putting politics aside and defending the right of all citizens of each GCC country to obtain an education would help decrease the negative long-term social and economic fallout from the Qatar crisis.

Jesse Schatz is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Photo: Cornell University campus in Doha (Wikimedia Commons).

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