It looks like an American college campus, except for those little things like – a sign by the gate that admonishes undergraduates to "Please Remind Your Maids That They Are Not Allowed Beyond the Entrance." Or the fact that although nearly everyone is wearing jeans, you'd never know it because most are covered by full-length abayas and dishdashas.
Welcome to Education City – Qatar's 2,500-acre answer to getting a top US education without giving up your mom's pampering, your maid's cooking, or your weekend camel races.
Taking globalization of higher education to new heights, five American universities, including Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown, have opened satellite campuses here in the past few years, employing some of the same professors as at their stateside campuses, demanding the same tuition, and – theoretically – providing the same education.
The aim, says Nawal Abdullah al-Shaikh, spokeswoman for the country's Supreme Education Council, is to create an environment of reform and progress without losing strong Islamic values.
"We need to invest in, better, and diversify our educational system, but we also need and want to remain a traditional society," she says.
James Reardon-Anderson, a former faculty chair at Georgetown University in Washington and dean of the school's program in Qatar, admits, "OK, they don't get the Washington experience ... and there is no basketball team. But otherwise, you are getting the real thing. This is a unique experiment in human history."
The experiment is still under construction. At this point, workmen outnumber students about 3 to 1.
Eventually it will have student housing, cafes, palm trees, more colleges (negotiations are under way with business and journalism schools), an $8 billion teaching hospital, and thousands of students from Qatar and beyond.
Already, some 500 students study here, approximately half of them Qataris.
"Education is a primary building block of any human," explains Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the energetic, reform-minded second wife of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. As head of the Qatar Foundation, she is the main force behind Education City.
"I believe that encouraging critical thinking and processing of knowledge means you are creating a full, well-rounded human being. This sort of human will help and enable you to build up your society," says Ms. Missned.
Like other wealthy Gulf youngsters, many Qataris looking for a top-notch education have gone to the US and Europe. The current emir of Qatar graduated from Sandhurst Academy in Britain, as did both his father, the former emir.
But, for many Qataris – particularly women – in this family-oriented, traditional society, getting a US-style academic experience in a familiar cultural context has great appeal.
While women drive, work, and vote in this traditional Muslim society, most are not allowed to travel abroad by themselves – even to study.
"My brother is 23 and is in Boston studying business management and I was interested in a US education as well. But if I were to have gone to the US, I would have needed a chaperone," says Fatima Mostafawi, a third-year graphic design student at Virginia Commonwealth University's Doha campus. "My mom would have had to come with me to help me. I don't know how to live alone, and it's not accepted."
Al Anood Nasser al-Thani, a young mother and second-year interior design student, says she would have never been able to "do it all" if it had not been for Education City. "The best thing that happened to this country is these universities. I can feel safe and secure about being at home – and get a great education," she says, adjusting her veil and sawing into a wood block as part of a furniture workshop.
"Sure, I want to see other cultures. I want to go to China, for example. But not now. I have everything here. Or just about."
The price tag for building Education City – reported to be more than $1 billion – has been picked up by the Qatari government. And, while none of the colleges would comment directly on finances, officials speaking off the record say professors who come here make salaries anywhere between 25 to 40 percent higher than in the US.
Tuition – which the Qatari government also covers if the student is a Qatari citizen – goes straight to the universities' coffers back home. Moreover, Qatari government donations reportedly as large as $50 million to those institutions further sweeten the deals. But money, insist school officials, is not the only, or real, reason they are here.
"This is the most open-minded, tolerant political system in the region, and a good home for us," says Mr. Reardon- Anderson. "We are starting a fascinating dialogue."
A Jesuit institution, Georgetown demands students take a mandatory theology class as part of the required curriculum. It's taught by a Jesuit priest. The concept, says Reardon- Anderson, has gone over well in Qatar. "We have a lot to learn from one another," he says.
Not everyone is thrilled with such dialogue, or with the imported coed paradigm. "Westernization is the biggest challenge Arab and Islamic societies are facing today," argues Doha-based Islamic scholar Ali al-Quradaghi in reference to Education City. "Globalization is just the latest incarnation of colonialism ... it threatens to undermine the Islamic identity and it poses a threat of cultural invasion to the region."
For the most part, though, the region seems to want its own piece of that cultural invasion. Abu Dhabi has lured both France's INSEAD Business School, and the Sorbonne to its Emirate – while Dubai has scored the Harvard Medical School, which is setting up a postgraduate research center there this year. Stay tuned for the kick off of Ivy league football in the desert next. (Tailgate parties discouraged.)