Students cross a sky bridge at the temporary site of Northwestern University in Qatar on the Education City campus in Doha on Nov. 2. The school is housed in a building intended for Carnegie Mellon University Qatar. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Northwestern University came here to teach journalism and communication, a tough assignment in a country with tight controls on public speech. It was the latest in a series of prestigious U.S. universities the wealthy emirate lured to a monumental complex on the desert’s edge, called Education City.

Terms were generous: Academic freedom guaranteed, world-class facilities, expenses fully covered. All Northwestern had to do was build a program on par with those at its home campus outside Chicago, and award degrees here bearing its name.

“It was a good deal,” said Everette E. Dennis, Northwestern’s dean in Qatar. “No financial risk. The only risk was reputational.” A university home to the renowned Medill School of Journalism would not want to lower standards to satisfy the whims of sheikhs 7,000 miles from Lake Michigan.

Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth universities all struck the same bargain with Qatari leaders. A foundation the ruling family created has spent billions of dollars over 15 years — the six U.S. branches receive a total outlay of more than $320 million each year — to import elite higher education in specialties from medicine to foreign service, engineering to fine arts, enabling Qataris to obtain coveted U.S. degrees without leaving the Persian Gulf.

“The idea of having an Ivy League education in the comfort of your own home?” said Ahmed Al-Qahtani, 24, an aspiring ophthalmologist and third-year student at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. “All I can say is, thank you, your Highness, for everything.”

U.S. colleges and universities run dozens of branch campuses around the world, reflecting rapid globalization in academia. Education City is perhaps the most prominent example of this trend, offering an optimistic vision of social advancement in the Middle East at a time of global concern about war in Syria and the Islamic State’s role in terrorism.

But the Doha experiment, financed with riches from natural gas and oil exports, also is a huge gamble.

Qatar, a nation of 2.2 million on the Arabian peninsula, faces the uncertainty of what Western teachings could unleash in a culturally conservative, predominantly Muslim society that takes Islamic law seriously. While U.S. universities prize independent thought and free speech, Qatar’s monarchy wields virtually absolute power in a nation with few forums for political dissent.

The universities face the risk that their sterling brands could be weakened if their Qatar operations fall short of U.S. standards. They also must defend a venture that ties them to a regime with numerous critics.

Soccer fans wonder whether corruption helped Qatar land the World Cup in 2022. Israel advocates question Qatari connections to the Palestinian Hamas leadership in Gaza. Human rights monitors decry the imprisonment of a Qatari poet, Mohammed al-’Ajami, for spreading verse deemed seditious and insulting to the emir.

University leaders acknowledge challenges.

“We are present in a very complex context, a complex region,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said. The university “carefully and exhaustively examined” whether the venture would compromise its “core moral values” before agreeing in 2005 to start a branch here of its School of Foreign Service, he said. That branch is entering its second decade, and DeGioia said he remains convinced that Georgetown made the right decision.

“Being engaged is better than not,” he said. “We are contributing, I think, to building a common good in the region.”

Alya Al Harthy, right, from Oman, listens to peer James Copplestone Farmer, from England, at Northwestern University in Qatar on the Education City campus. Both students are seniors studying communication. Education City is home to several U.S. university branches and draws students from other nations. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Multiple concerns

Exporting U.S. higher education overseas has long drawn concerns, and well beyond Qatar. U.S. university branches have been accused of benefiting from migrant labor exploitation in Abu Dhabi and providing undue legitimacy to repressive regimes in China and Singapore.

Harry R. Lewis, a computer scientist and former dean of Harvard College, said he worries about attempts to replicate the American collegiate experience in societies where Western values may not be as strong.

“It’s like trying to pick up French grapevines and plant them in Idaho or somewhere,” Lewis said. “It might work. But the soil conditions and the light conditions are different. Those things really matter.”

Independent since 1971, Qatar lies between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran. Before the discovery of oil, its economy depended on fishing and pearl diving. Now one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Qatar is vital to the United States as a stage for military operations. First lady Michelle Obama visited Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha in November to show support for U.S. troops.

Obama also met in Education City with Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, mother of Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Chair of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, the sheikha has been the driving force behind the higher education project.

Mindful that gas and oil reserves will not last forever, Sheikha Moza said she wants Education City to catalyze a transition to a “knowledge-based” economy.

“Bringing these academic programs here was not just for the sake of the programs,” she said in fluent English in an interview at the Qatar National Convention Center. “We brought them here to elevate all aspects of our society” — including, she said, economics and politics. “We wanted our citizens to be mentally open. We wanted them to be critical thinkers, to have a stake in the country.”

How much critical thinking Qatar is willing to nurture remains a question as reports of censorship emerge from time to time. Author Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who has taught English here for VCU, Northwestern and Georgetown, said her novel “Love Comes Later” was banned last year with little explanation.

“I’m surprised to hear that,” Sheikha Moza said of the incident. The sheikha said social media is rapidly making censorship an “outdated” issue. She also said she once personally intervened to free up a book shipment to Education City that was stuck in customs. “They gave us a paper to sign,” she said.

Students attending Georgetown University's campus in Qatar describe how they plan to use their degrees to contribute to social advancements in their communities. (Bonnie Jo Mount and Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Engage and think

This fall, about 2,000 students are enrolled here in U.S. universities. Nearly all of them applied and were admitted straight into the six branches. Universities insist the ruling family and other influential people get no special treatment.

Of 361 applicants to Georgetown in Qatar this year, 179 were accepted. The admission rate of 50 percent compares with 17 percent for Georgetown in Washington. Tuition is the same: about $48,000 a year. All Qatari students receive tuition grants from their government, Georgetown said. Many non-Qatari students receive loans.

The first Catholic university in the United States, Georgetown maintains its Jesuit identity in Doha. One afternoon in November, theologian Akintunde E. Akinade led a discussion of Judaism in a required class called “The Problem of God.” Akinade and his students wrestled with the Ten Commandments, Psalm 91 — “the Lord is my refuge” — and Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night.”

“This is not a church,” said Akinade, an Anglican minister from Nigeria. “This is not a mosque. We’re not here to preach to you. We’re here to engage you, to make you think as a scholar.”

The Georgetown campus, like the others, is deeply international, with students from Oman, Mexico, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and more. Many have the zigzag life stories of the expatriate majority in Qatar.

Israa Al-Kamali, 20, a junior, came here from Baghdad with her family before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. She applied to universities in Education City and the United Kingdom, choosing Georgetown in Doha for its diversity, location and small class size. The student-faculty ratio here is 5 to 1. On the Washington campus called the Hilltop, it is 11 to 1.

After graduation she wants to work on “saving and reviving culture,” Al-Kamali said. She worries about what the Islamic State is doing to her native country, ravaged by war for much of her life. “The ancient culture is under threat,” she said. “Museums are under threat.”

Students here say they have complete freedom of expression. “Never a problem,” said Abdullah Ahmad, 22, a senior from Pakistan. “We take great pride in it.”

Ahmad said he was drawn by generous financial aid and the scale of ambitions: Education City is composed of palatial edifices of angled stone and glass, with trickling fountains and palm trees. Northwestern’s new building is encased in amber travertine limestone from Turkey.

“Everything is so grand here,” Ahmad said. “Nothing can be medium. Everything has to stand out.”

The exterior of Texas A&M University at Qatar on the Education City campus in Doha. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Male students interact in a “majlis” — an area designated for men — at Texas A&M University at Qatar on Nov. 2. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

‘A long way’

Education City was nearly an enterprise of the University of Virginia. In 1998, the Qatar Foundation launched talks with U-Va. to start a branch in engineering, liberal arts, commerce and medicine. The state legislature and governor encouraged placing the Virginia flagship at a global crossroads.

But the U-Va. governing board rejected the plan in 1999. “A major disappointment,” recalled John T. Casteen III, U-Va.’s president at the time. He said some on the board seemed concerned about academic freedom. “I remember being told it was just a long way from Virginia.”

Undeterred, the foundation wooed other U.S. universities. The breakthrough came in 2001, when Cornell agreed to establish a medical school, Qatar’s first, with a reported promise of $750 million in support over a decade.

Hunter R. Rawlings III, Cornell’s president at the time, said the university’s motive was idealistic.

“Part of our thinking was, most American involvement in the Middle East has to do with guns and oil,” recalled Rawlings, now president of the Association of American Universities. “This project seems to have to do with medicine and education. It’s such a different message. Why don’t we try it?”

Others followed. Texas A&M agreed to teach engineering; Carnegie Mellon, business and computer science. VCU, which had run an arts and design program here since 1998, signed a 10-year deal. Then came Georgetown and, in 2008, Northwestern.

The six U.S. schools have awarded more than 2,250 degrees here. Graduates have moved into prominent graduate schools and positions in government, private industry, hospitals and the Doha-based Arab news outlet Al Jazeera.

The rise of Education City also benefited young women from Muslim families whose parents worried about sending them abroad. More than 40 percent of Texas A&M’s students here are female, a much larger share than found in many U.S. engineering programs. Meera Abu Soufah, 20, the student body president, an aspiring chemical engineer, said her experience “really shows the Aggie spirit.”

Visitors relax on the grounds the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 6. The building was designed by I.M. Pei. Doha has numerous buildings designed by famous architects. The Doha skyline is in the background. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Financial information

Many details about operations of Education City are shrouded in secrecy. Mohamad Fathy Saoud, a former foundation president, said “a few billion dollars” were spent on facilities. The total annual outlay for the six branches is more than $320 million, according to data from U.S. education and tax records and university officials. In 2014, the foundation provided Northwestern $45.3 million, Georgetown $59.5 million and Cornell $121.7 million for Qatar activities, according to officials and U.S. records.

The four private universities declined to release their contracts with the foundation. But VCU disclosed its contract to The Washington Post because it is a public record. (A Post request for Texas A&M’s contract under state public records law is pending.)

VCU’s second 10-year agreement with the foundation took effect in July 2012. It stipulates that VCU in Qatar, or VCUQ, shall have the “same standards of quality for faculty, staff, students and curricula” that are maintained at the main campus in Richmond; that VCU will control hiring and admissions; that the VCUQ dean reports to university officials in the United States; and that VCUQ “shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, and shall not abridge the rights of freedom of speech or religion.”

The agreement also states that “admission priority shall be given to qualified Qatari citizens” and that faculty and staff “shall participate in an extensive orientation program in Doha” on the “respective cultures” in Qatar and at the university. The agreement gives the foundation power to approve annual budgets.

The estimated operating budget for VCUQ in fiscal 2013 was $39.5 million, with tuition and fees supplying $9.2 million and the foundation the rest. The total included a management fee to VCU of more than $3.6 million.

At no expense to Virginia taxpayers, the deal gave the state university global cachet. Without VCUQ, “would VCU be as well known around the world as it has become?” university President Michael Rao asked. “I don’t know. I have to say I seriously doubt that.”

Students socialize at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar on the Education City campus in Doha on Nov. 3. The space is designed to embrace Middle Eastern style and comfort. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar watch a women's basketball game at Education City in Doha on Nov. 4. Students from the university enthusiastically supported the game against Texas A&M, which VCU won. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Student life

Student life is perhaps quieter here than in the States. Alcohol is scarce, officials say, fraternities and sororities unknown. Universities offer freshmen some only-in-Doha activities: a scavenger hunt at the famous Souq Waqif market, a dhow cruise on the gulf with classmates. There are student clubs and sports such as soccer, cricket and basketball.

One night a thudding soundtrack of brass and drums filled a VCUQ hall at a pep rally next to a tented and carpeted lounge known as a majlis. Students visiting from Richmond circled up with peers here to teach them to jump, clap and yell what VCU calls its “War Chant.” Then fans and players spilled outside for a rowdy march to the student center for VCU’s game against Texas A&M in women’s basketball.

Rams vs. Aggies, dueling in Doha. On other nights the rivals might be Tartans, Hoyas, Wildcats or the Big Red.

Fitrya Amanda, 19, a junior on the team, wore a black headscarf along with her black and gold uniform, #23, and VCU stickers on her cheeks. Born in Indonesia, she grew up in Doha and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fine arts when she’s not shooting hoops. Amanda plays a swing position, front and back court.

“We consider ourselves Rams,” she said. “We love being Rams.”

Steven Pagach, 20, a junior from Fairfax County who plays trumpet in the Richmond pep band, marveled at the scene. “This is an incredible experience,” he said during his visit. “It’s just really, really cool to see they love VCU as much as we do.”

Freshman Nimrah Kabiruddin, from India, reviews work in the surface studio at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar on the Education City campus in Doha on Nov. 3. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Compromises, yes

Faculty members at Education City are a global lot. Some come from the States for a short-term gig, are surprised at how much they like it, and stay years. Others are hired locally. Carnegie Mellon’s dean in Qatar, Ilker Baybars, called faculty recruiting “the most difficult part of my job.” It is hard to persuade tenured professors to trade life on a bustling American campus for Doha, where the academic community is small and the weather ranges from pleasant to sweltering. Schools sometimes offer U.S. faculty a salary premium of 25 percent, and generous housing arrangements. Qatar also dangles research funding as an incentive.

Faculty members and deans at all six branches said they have complete academic freedom. That doesn’t mean there are no compromises.

VCUQ won’t use nude models to teach art, in deference to cultural norms. Nathan Davies, an assistant professor at VCUQ, showed a reporter an art book from the campus collection in which someone had placed metallic tape over portions of nude body images in an apparent effort to enforce a standard of modesty. But Davies said such incidents can be positive because they stimulate debate.

“I’m here because ideas still matter here,” Davies said. “Ideas matter so much here that people get passionate, and they argue.”

Northwestern’s faculty and students face special challenges in a society without First Amendment protection for media. Students told of being harassed or intimidated when they tried to take photographs or video of scenes considered routine in the United States, such as an exterior view of a public hospital or TV station.

Mary Dedinsky, a former managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times who directs the Northwestern journalism program here, said students hone skills by overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a story. She cited one group of students who sought to expose domestic abuse of Filipino maids. They waited several days outside a shelter that refused to let them in.

“We told them, ‘You’ve got to be persistent,’ ” Dedinsky said. “ ‘You can’t give up.’ ” Finally the students tried another tactic, bringing a mother with them to ask permission for entry. They got in.

Dennis, the Northwestern dean, has experience in navigating Qatari sensitivities. He led a six-nation survey this year on media use in the Middle East. It was financed by the Qatar National Research Fund. Among other questions, the survey asked whether people think their country is “headed in the right direction” — a routine question in American politics. The study found optimism rising in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon, but declining in Saudi Arabia shortly after the death in January of King Abdullah.

There was no information on the Qatari view. Someone in the government refused to let Northwestern ask that question. Researchers acknowledged the omission in a footnote. “Who knows why they like some questions and don’t like others?” Dennis said.

A man prays in the mosque at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies on the Education City campus in Doha on Nov. 5. The building, designed by Mangera Yvars Architects, was recently awarded at the World Architecture Festival. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)