Paula Koch
Last updated: 22 May, 2012

Transforming Qatar: An Oil-Funded Vision

The upheaval of the Arab Spring has overshadowed cases of progress and calm in the Middle East. As the world watches events unfold in Syria, Egypt, and Libya, states such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates have gone unnoticed in their relative placidity. Perhaps the model of respite in this time of disquiet is the small, oil-rich state of Qatar.

While the region struggles to balance traditional identities, the pressures of globalization, and political transitions, Qatar stands out as having attempted to address these challenges proactively by working towards an inclusive, diversified, and developed society driven by its human capital rather than its oil reserves. The state-supported powerhouse organization, the Qatar Foundation, has been active in advancing these developmental goals outlined in Qatar’s National Vision.

Over the past decades, Qatar has enjoyed extensive economic and social development made possible by the state’s hydrocarbon resources, which constitute approximately 62% of its total government revenues. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that in 2010, the Qatari economy grew by 16.6 percent. The vast oil wealth has propelled Qatar to the position of highest per-capital income country (estimated to be ahead of Lichtenstein).

While the country’s proven oil reserves should enable Qatar to continue its current levels of output for the next four to five decades, this precious resource is finite. The Qatari government has embarked on a mission to shift to a more diversified economy that will be sustainable after the depletion of its hydrocarbon reserves.

In 2008, Qatar published its National Vision 2030, which sets out a plan to strengthen the state’s role in the international community and transform the economy to sustain its own development. The National Vision recognizes the opportunities for development and progress afforded Qatar by its oil revenues but emphasizes that the Qatari people will be the foundation of a long-term, sustainable society. Healthcare, education, and workforce training are included in the state’s strategy to endow its population with the tools necessary to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based international system.

The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development is the state’s primary conduit for advancing key components of its National Vision. The Foundation, established in 1995, is a semi-private and heavily government-supported organization with the primary mission of “unlocking human potential” in Qatar. The foundation’s activities are far-reaching and ambitious. However, Qatari oil revenues that fund QF’s endowment make such ambition possible.

QF’s flagship program is Education City, a 14 square kilometer complex located near the Qatari capital of Doha and home to institutions for elementary through university education. The Foundation has cultivated partnerships with leading global universities including Georgetown, Texas A&M and University College London to offer specialized programs for its students ranging from journalism to medicine. QF has been able to attract such academic institutions to Education City by covering significant portions of the universities’ operating and management costs with the foundation’s sizable government-funded endowment.

Education City also hosts a number of research institutions such as the Qatar Science and Technology Park, a technological innovation research center. Later this year, the Sidre Medical and Research Center, a $2.3 billion QF project located in Education City, is expected to begin operations. The broad range of academic courses and research institutions that are a part of Education City highlights the premium that QF places on education and intellectual advancement as a means of advancing Qatari society. By investing in the education of Qatari people through the projects of QF, the government is hoping to reap the long-term rewards of a Qatari-driven workforce and a revitalized, knowledge-based economy.

The success of the QF’s mission lies not only in research and graduating students from Education City but also in preparing Qataris to contribute to the domestic workforce. “Brain drain,” the emigration of educated individuals to other countries in search of work, has historically been a problem for many Arab countries where the economies do not offer enough jobs for the educated youth.

QF’s numerous joint-venture organizations offer additional opportunities for employment while simultaneously meeting the country’s need for specialized skills that will sustain a knowledge-based economy. Among these institutions are branding company Fitch Qatar, Information Technology service provider MEEZA, and bilingual publishing company Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.

While the Qatar Foundation’s mission is primarily domestically focused, the organization’s international affiliate, Qatar Foundation International (QFI), extends QF’s influence abroad. In addition to increasing Qatar’s international visibility, QFI programs focus on education, global citizenship and fostering cultural connections particularly among youths. “Education is the best way to facilitate collaboration across geographical, social and cultural boundaries,” commented QFI Executive Director, Maggie Mitchell Salem. “We have seen remarkable changes among the hundreds of students that have been engaged in QFI programs.”

Upcoming QFI initiatives demonstrate the organization’s commitment to cross-cultural education. One QFI program will bring together Qatari, American and Brazilian youth to participate in the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June. QFI is also working to expand the availability of Arabic language and cultural education programs to schools across the Americas and specifically in the U.S., Canada and Argentina.

Salem noted that QFI “will continue to explicitly link learning activities to the major global challenges of the 21stcentury, such as climate change, conservation of water resources, digital technology and global media, and globalization itself, which will affect all of us, regardless of where we live.”

The domestic and international initiatives of the Qatar Foundation are seemingly well-intentioned. However, QF’s influence is only continuing to grow. A single organization with the ability to guide a country’s education and research initiatives should be closely scrutinized. Scientists and doctors from Qatar and abroad seeking research funding submit proposals to QF’s Qatar National Research Fund where selection is guided by QF’s founding principles. Youths in Education City’s schooling pipeline are taught under the auspices of QF. Graduates from Education City’s institutions and other universities seek employment with affiliates and partners of QF. The pervading presence of the Qatar Foundation would not seem as foreboding if competitor organizations were available to provide similar services and opportunities in Qatar. Similarly, the Qatar Foundation’s work abroad should be carefully examined as QFI expands the foundation’s international activities, its presence and power.

The extent of the Qatar Foundation’s reach is certainly impressive. With programs designed to educate and employ the Qatari youth, promote a knowledge-based domestic economy, and encourage cross-cultural education, the Qatar Foundation’s influence cannot be undervalued. The success of the foundation’s initiatives in achieving the Qatari National Vision 2030 will not be measurable for several generations. However, the predictable stability of Qatar’s oil revenues will ensure that the Qatar Foundation maintains its domestic power and continues to strengthen its influence abroad for decades to come.

Paula Koch is a Master’s candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where she is studying Security Policy Studies. She was also a Fulbright Fellow to Jordan.