Two students at Northwestern University Qatar. (NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY)

It might have seemed an odd choice for the Midwestern university’s first overseas campus. Qatar is a small, peninsular nation in the Middle East whose principal claim to fame is its oil wealth: Qatar has the world’s largest per-capita gross domestic product.

But Northwestern (disclosure: I learned my trade there) is not the only prestigious American university to set up shop in Qatar. Education City, in the capital city of Doha, hosts six major branch campuses. Locals can enroll to study foreign service at Georgetown University, the arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, medicine at Cornell, petroleum engineering at Texas A&M and business or computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

I interviewed Everette Dennis, new dean of Northwestern Qatar. He told me, essentially, that Qatar is one of a very few places (another being China) that have all the necessary prerequisites to attract big American universities.

“They have tremendous population growth, they have economic prowess and they need educated people,” Dennis said. Europe, Latin America and the rest of the world either has the universities it needs or lacks the resources to build more.

I asked Dennis about academic freedom. Scholars in both China and parts of the Middle East operate with less independence and with more apprehension overall than those in the United States.

Dennis said the universities at Education City “have insisted that they be an island and that they be guaranteed complete academic freedom and intellectual discourse. . . . On the other hand, there is also the caveat that they respect the traditions and cultures of the region.” Integrating men and women into the academic program, for example, “is not without difficulty.”

Faculty can go to Qatar for a term of one to three years. Adjusting to the country and the local culture and environment may be a challenge, but Education City “has better facilities than almost any university in the United States,” Dennis said. “They live in high style.”

And how does one teach journalism in a region where journalists are occasionally threatened, terrorized, censored, detained, tortured or killed?

Students in Qatar learn the same basic principles of free speech as Medill journalism students in Evanston, Dennis said.

“The press laws of many of these countries are changing pretty rapidly,” he said. “In Qatar, for example, they abolished the ministry of information a few years ago.”

Nonetheless, “there’s a mixture of monarchies and governments that have not been friendly to freedom of expression all across the region,” he said. “People still go to the cooler for writing a story that’s unpopular for one reason or another. . . . One time a parent stood up at an information session and said, ‘Why should I let my son or daughter get involved in a profession that might get them killed?’ ”