DOHA—Long-term effects on education in the Arab region are feared as the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its neighbors enters its fourth week without any sign of resolution.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar on June 5 and imposed measures to isolate the small Gulf country over alleged support for Islamist groups. Qatar denies the accusations.
On June 26, the official Qatar News Agency said Qatari students in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had been prevented from taking end of year exams and refused graduation certificates, and that their education accounts had been blocked and their registrations closed. The QNA statement described the actions as “a flagrant violation of the right to education,” but did not give details of the students who were affected or where they were studying. (See the related article: “Arab Students Caught in Regional Conflict With Qatar.”)
Education officials in the country worry that if the situation continues, it might have negative effects on education in the region as a whole.
“The real loss in this crisis will be education development in the region,” says Hamad al-Ibrahim, executive vice president for research and development at the Qatar Foundation. “Depriving students of the chance to benefit from education opportunities at Qatar Foundation and its international universities would affect efforts to develop local and regional talent.”
The government-led Qatar Foundation supports the branch campuses of eight international universities. The aim of the branch campuses is to attract Arab and Muslim students whose families feel more comfortable sending them to study in a conservative country, rather than in the United States or other Western country.
“If the situation continues, it will of course impact the flow of students from these countries,” al-Ibrahim said.
The Qatar Foundation has 2,651 enrolled students from 38 different nations, including 100 students from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Al-Ibrahim said none of these students have been asked to leave and they are welcome to resume their studies in the next academic year once the situation resolves. “We see these students as part of our community and remain committed to providing them with quality education, unless their countries decide to pull them out.”
Several students from the boycotting countries who are studying in Qatar have already been forced to leave in the wake of the rift, following directions from their governments. Students have the option to postpone their studies for up to three academic terms, following common educational practice. Al-Ibrahim is hopeful the crisis might be over much sooner.
However, earlier this week, the United Arab Emirates said the sanctions could last for years unless Doha accepts the demands of the boycotting countries.
Most of the faculty members of the international universities supported by the Qatar Foundation are from the United States, the United Kingdom and France and are not affected.
Faculty members and administrative staff from Egypt were not affected either, and the recruitment plans of the foundation continue, according to al-Ibrahim.
“This is a unilateral siege. We have 226 faculty and non-faculty staff members from Egypt who didn’t leave the country and are welcome to stay,” he said.
However, 12 staff members from Saudi Arabia and 11 from Bahrain have been recalled by their governments. Al-Ibrahim said no action has been taken to terminate their services or end their employment.
Al-Ibrahim also ruled out any effect on the American branch campuses in Qatar. U.S. President Donald Trump accused Qatar of funding terrorism at the beginning of the crisis. Later, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a timely resolution of the Qatari issue and encouraged the parties to negotiate. “The region has been through many crises and there has been no effect whatsoever on the operations of branch campuses. The relationships with branch campuses are based on long-term agreements,” he said.
Construction work at Doha’s Education City has not been disrupted by the boycott, since 90 percent of the infrastructure and all academic and research buildings have already been completed, and work continues on schedule despite minor logistical problems. Qatar imports most of its construction material from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “As a country we always have the option of bringing raw materials from other countries. We had some logistical challenges due to delay of shipments at the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, but it was all diverted to the recently opened Hamad Port in Qatar,” al-Ibrahim said.
Qatar Foundation recently launched the tenth round of its National Research Fund, which benefits a number of citizens of the countries participating in the boycott, but the Foundation has declared its commitment to providing the necessary support for all the Fund’s beneficiaries despite the current situation. “Education and research should not be affected by politics. They should be independent. In fact, education and research should be seen as a means to repair what has been damaged by politics,” al-Ibrahim said.