DOHA, Qatar — Her jet was on the runway, about to take off for the United States, on a quest to recruit a top university to bring elite higher education to this tiny Persian Gulf nation. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, wife of the all-powerful emir, was confident she could pull it off. But on that day in the late 1990s, someone in her entourage voiced doubts.
“If you’re going with that kind of mindset, leave now,” Sheikha Moza told her aides, frustrated at any hint of skepticism. “If you are not convinced, you have to leave now.”
The jet took off, and so, eventually, did Education City.
Sheikha Moza recounted that episode in a recent interview near the cluster of U.S. university branches established here during the past two decades with a dual promise that academic freedom would be guaranteed and all expenses paid. The universities — Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth — reached those terms with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.
The Qatar Foundation was founded in 1995 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, at the time the Qatari emir. Moza, Hamad’s second wife, was the co-founder. In 2013, Hamad stepped down as emir and handed power to their son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Qatar’s wealth, amassed through exports of natural gas and oil, provides the foundation with enormous resources. That was obviously crucial in the creation of Education City.
But so, by all accounts, was the willpower of Sheikha Moza. Now 56, she is the foundation’s chairwoman and remains deeply engaged in its operations.
“She had the most extraordinary vision,” said John T. Casteen III, former president of the University of Virginia. “She definitely had the quality of seeing the future.”
In 1998 and 1999, the foundation negotiated with U-Va. to create a branch in Doha with programs in medicine, engineering and other fields. “We were very close to signing with Virginia,” Sheikha Moza said. The deal fell through when U-Va.’s governing board backed out. The sheikha recalled being told that some in Virginia were concerned about “selling” the school to a “petrodollar” country on the Arabian peninsula.
“They regretted their decision,” she said. “With oil, we also have substance.”
The sheikha refused to accept defeat. She quickly pivoted to discussions with other top universities. A series of agreements ensued, starting with Cornell’s decision in 2001 to open a medical school here.
To bring Western universities into a society with limits on public speech and circulation of books is not simple. Since 2011, Qatar has imprisoned a poet named Mohammed al-‘Ajami for writing and reciting verses deemed seditious and insulting to the emir, according to Amnesty International. Northwestern University’s faculty senate, in Evanston, Ill., approved a resolution in May 2013 calling on Qatar to pardon and release the poet. The resolution also expressed support for “freedom of intellectual and artistic expression for the people of Qatar.”
But faculty and university deans in Education City say they have found no limits on their own academic freedom. The universities, under their agreements with the foundation, also control hiring and admissions.
Sheikha Moza told The Post she has been vigilant to ensure promises to the universities are kept.
Once a relative called to ask if she would use her clout to help a family member secure entry to Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. “I said, ‘I can’t help,'” she recalled. To intervene in admissions would undermine the entire premise of the project.
Another time, Sheikha Moza called a government official when a shipment of books bound for Education City got held up in customs. “I said, ‘What’s happening? Why are they not being delivered?'” The official replied that someone had to vouch for the books before they could be let in.
“I can,” she replied to the official. “I’m taking responsibility.” She said the foundation was given a paper to sign.
But barriers remain. A writing instructor on the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth in Qatar, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, last year disclosed that the government had banned the sale of one of her novels, “Love Comes Later.” Rajakumar, who also has taught for Northwestern and Georgetown in Qatar, confirmed the ban in a recent email to The Post.
“I’m surprised to hear that,” Sheikha Moza said. The concept of censorship is becoming “outdated” in the age of social media, she said. The sheikha said obstacles to expression generally arise not from the government but from people elsewhere in society “who still do not get it.” To change that, she said, “you have to change the culture.”
Sheikha Moza said culture change is one of the goals of Education City.
“We have the wealth,” she said. “To not use our money for creating a knowledge-based society would be a big waste.”
Sheikha Moza credited her husband with backing the idea. “He’s a visionary man,” she said. “Anything related to education, he couldn’t say no.” As an example, she cited the creation of what is known as the “Well of Knowledge.”
One day she approached her husband about securing a funding source for foundation activities from Qatar’s oil reserves. She recalled saying: “I’m going to ask His Highness if he would dedicate a well to our programs. I’m going to call it a ‘Well of Knowledge.’ This is for a recycling of wealth from natural resources to human resources.”
The emir agreed to dedicate revenue from an oil well to the foundation. The deal was done in an afternoon, foundation officials said.
Sheikha Moza graduated with a degree in sociology from Qatar University, which was founded shortly after the nation gained independence in 1971. She has been active for years in United Nations education initiatives and in an annual conference held here called the World Innovation Summit for Education. In a speech to WISE on Nov. 4, she lamented that conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere have kept legions of children out of school.
“Ladies and gentlemen, education is under attack,” she said. In the Middle East and North Africa, she said, “our schools have been turned into cemeteries, and our students and teachers into refugees.”
Sheikha Moza spoke with The Post the next day during the summit at the Qatar National Convention Center. First lady Michelle Obama, wife of the U.S. president, also attended the summit.
Many Qatari women revere Sheikha Moza for advancing equal educational opportunity. At Education City, which draws large numbers of female students, classes are coeducational. That contrasts with single-sex education customs in some parts of the Arab world.
“She opened the doors,” said Maram Al-Dafa, 22, who graduated in May from Georgetown in Qatar with a degree in international politics. “Qatar was a very different place only 20 years ago. Before, it was considered risque for a woman to go to a ‘mixed’ university — as in, a co-ed environment. That wasn’t the norm before. Now, people see Qatari women as leaders, not followers. Qatari women are proving themselves, and the society is starting to change.”
The sheikha said she wants to make something clear about her agenda: “To be frank with you, I’m not a feminist.” She said Education City was designed “for all people, men and women. … I never saw it as a women’s project.”
So far, she said, she has observed no backlash to the influence of Western universities in a predominantly Muslim country that is fast-growing but culturally conservative. “We are not doing it for the sake of things to be different, or to be modern,” she said. “Education is a cornerstone for our development and advancement.”
The foundation has spent billions of dollars to develop and operate Education City, and it clearly seems committed for the long term. The U.S. universities here operate under 10-year agreements, with provisions for renewal. Georgetown, for instance, is now in the second decade of a commitment that extends to 2025. The foundation reimbursed Georgetown for about $59 million in Qatar expenses in 2014, U.S. education records show, and it spends tens of millions of dollars a year to operate each of the other university branches.
But Sheikha Moza said it might help in the future if other sources could be found to provide funding for expenses such as student financial aid. “Why not?” she said. “I don’t see why not.” She said she even asked Sanford Weill — a major Cornell benefactor whose name is on the university’s medical school — to endow financial aid for students in Qatar. She said she has received no answer yet. “I’m waiting,” she said.