A diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf has left U.S. universities with campuses in Qatar wondering what will happen next, with a global rescue firm watching the situation closely and working on contingency plans.
For now, the six U.S. universities with campuses in the tiny, energy-rich country are operating normally — and seeking to reassure students and faculty members, particularly those from the bloc of Arab nations that have cut ties with Qatar.
Global Rescue, a travel-rescue, crisis-management firm, has identified several trigger points that would lead it to advise its university clients in Doha’s Education City to move or evacuate people.
“None of those have been crossed yet,” said Dan Richards, Global Rescue’s chief executive. “I say ‘yet,’ because we don’t know where this is going to go.” The firm deployed people to the region, and they haven’t seen any immediate threat. “We’re not advising anyone to leave the country at present.” Richards said. “We haven’t seen any civil unrest or violence.” And people can get in and out, even if taking a commercial flight is more complicated now. “If either of those change, our guidance to the clients will change. … As of right now our posture is one of waiting and seeing what is going to happen,” Richards said.
There has long been tension in the region, said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University professor who is teaching in the School of Foreign Service in Qatar. But the latest news had him not worried about safety as much as the potential effect on academics: If faculty members and students from Qatar are unable to travel to the other countries for research, for example, or if the classrooms become less culturally and politically diverse, there won’t be the same exchange of ideas.
“Everyone at the university is apprehensive,” Wilcox said, “and monitoring this very closely.”
On June 5, several Arab nations severed diplomatic ties and moved to isolate Qatar, cutting land, sea and air links. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain ordered diplomats and all citizens to leave. The Saudis closed off Qatar’s only land border and, with Egypt and the UAE, blocked all air travel to the country.
On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked a bloc of Arab nations to ease their blockade of Qatar and urged them to resolve their differences to end the Persian Gulf dispute, warning that it was harming U.S. business interests and U.S. military actions against the Islamic State in the region and leading to humanitarian hardships.
President Trump seemed to undercut that message shortly afterward. He called the Saudi-led action against Qatar “hard but necessary.” He said that Qatar is a country that historically has been a “funder of terrorism at a very high level,” and he said that other countries had consulted with him in advance about confronting Qatar and that he and Tillerson had decided, along with “our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end that funding … and its extremist ideology.”
Qatar has spent billions on higher education in recent years, drawing in well-known universities from overseas. Carnegie Mellon University, Weill Cornell Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University, Texas A&M University, Northwestern University, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, HEC Paris and University College London have campuses in Qatar. The University of Aberdeen recently agreed to open a campus there, and it said in a statement that it is monitoring the situation.
The universities were promised full funding and academic freedom.
It was a wonderful opportunity to study there, an Egyptian student who just graduated from Georgetown University in Qatar said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. He had world-class academics and top-of-the-line facilities, just a few hours from home.
Now, he is wondering if he will be able to work in Qatar, as he had hoped, and many of his friends are wondering whether they will be able to continue their educations in Qatar. “Right now everything is gloomy,” he said. He added that Georgetown officials had been very reassuring, and the reports he was hearing from friends in Qatar were good: After an initial day of panic, they were relieved to find that food and other basics were arriving from Turkey, and there was no unrest or open animosity.
Melanie Dunn of the Qatar Foundation said in a written statement, “Whilst QF is saddened by current regional developments, these events have no impact on our operations nor our future plans, and we remain committed to developing local, regional and international talent. We look forward to welcoming a fresh intake of undergraduate and postgraduate students next term.”
Several schools issued statements similar to the one that Georgetown issued: “Georgetown’s top priority is the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff. We are monitoring the situation very closely and keeping our community apprised through daily communications. All summer school classes at Georgetown University in Qatar are proceeding as scheduled and all offices are operating normally.”
Virginia Commonwealth President Michael Rao wrote to the campus community that “it is too early to know the real impact on VCU Qatar, including travel plans of our students, faculty and staff. We are in summer session right now and operating on a normal schedule. The leadership of VCU’s campus in Doha is in close contact with the U.S. Embassy, deans of the other universities in Education City, Qatar Foundation officials and Global Rescue for any contingency planning regarding the diplomatic situation in the Gulf region. We are closely monitoring the situation and will advise as the ramifications become more clear.
“VCU Qatar enrolls about 365 students representing 41 nationalities and employs 63 faculty representing 15 nationalities. During the current summer session there are three classes being held and 28 students enrolled.”
The University of Calgary said: “At this point, while this situation is of political and diplomatic concern, there has been no indication that there is any increased security risk to our staff or students. The Canadian Embassy has not advised Canadians to do anything differently today, and so we are advising our staff and students that it is business as usual.”
Northwestern University in Qatar noted that it has “fewer than 20 students from the affected Gulf countries who are scheduled to be enrolled in the fall 2017 semester. NU-Q operates a small program during the summer with approximately 90 students enrolled, only two of whom are from the affected countries.”
“There’s a lot that could impact them,” Richards said, including a possibility of shortages because of sanctions or embargoes; an estimated 40 percent of the basic necessities of life are shipped in, so closing the land border is worrisome, although shelves are being restocked. The country is heavily dependent on workers from other countries, as well. “… It’s a fluid situation.”
The recent graduate from Egypt said he thinks the political issues can be resolved. “The problem is,” he said, “I’m not really sure what’s going to happen next.”