ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel and this week, I'm reporting about the state of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula. I was there earlier this month. Qatar is an absolute monarchy. The al-Thani family are the rulers and there's no parliament. Qatar is the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas and on a per capita basis, Qataris are immensely rich because there are so few of them, just 260,000.
They're a small minority in a population of just over 2 million. Here's a contradiction they've created in their race to modernity. They've shown no interest in political reform, but they've shown a huge interesting educating their young. For now, Qatar has solved an apparent contradiction with money.
SHEIKHA AISHA BINT FALEH BIN NASSER AL-THANI: Now this is the morning room. We sit here, you know, have tea and coffee. This is the sala, we call it sala in Arabic. It's the lobby.
SIEGEL: Dr. Sheika Aisha Bin Faleh Bin Nasser Al-Thani is a member of the ruling family. She received us in a sumptuous home in the capital, Doha. Do you know how many rooms there are?
AL-THANI: In the house? No. (Unintelligible)
AL-THANI: Yes, many.
SIEGEL: Sheikha Aisha sits on the Supreme Education Council and she owns a few independent schools. For her own children, she wanted a top-flight college education.
AL-THANI: I have two daughters. They're the youngest and then, my sons, they got educated in Britain. But when it came to my daughters, I was worried. Where will I send them? I can't send them to England. I can't send them to the States. And one of them was - she wanted to go to the States.
SIEGEL: In the end, Sheikha Aisha's daughter went to Northwestern, but not in Evanston, Illinois. She went to Northwestern's branch in Education City, EC for short, right in Doha. Rather than have to choose between a U.S. education and keeping their kids at home, the Qataris opted to have it both ways. EC is home to degree-granting departments from Northwestern, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth, Cornell Medical School and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
MEHRAN KAMRAVA: We're in the Georgetown building which was inaugurated in 2010, one of the biggest buildings in all of Education City.
SIEGEL: Professor Mehran Kamrava, an American, teaches political science at Georgetown-Doha. It is a splendidly equipped, coeducational institution.
KAMRAVA: Thursday night, we'll have a holiday party here complete with Santa and Christmas carols.
SIEGEL: Befitting a Jesuit institution, there's a Christmas tree in the cafeteria. You don't see that a lot in this conservative Muslim country. Seven of Professor Kamrava's Georgetown students sat down to talk with me. Two are Qatari. The others were from India, Singapore, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. I asked them about foreign migrant workers who are building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup and the criticism Qatar has received about them.
Allegations of unsafe working conditions, misleading contracts and a system of sponsorship by which migrants are bound to their employers. They typically hand over their passports to the boss and can't leave the job or the country without permission. In the face of this criticism, the government and the World Cup committee said they're shocked and they'll fix things. Well, the Georgetown students were skeptical. We'll hear first from Noor, a freshman who is Qatari and then, Sara from Oman.
NOOR: There should be a great feeling of responsibility, and I think often the government is investigating the problem, right? But the government knows exactly why the problem - I mean the government is...
SIEGEL: When they read the story in The Guardian a few weeks ago and said we're shocked, we're going to do something, you don't believe them? You don't think they...
NOOR: No, I don't. I don't think it's possible to not have known about the problem. I really don't think it's possible. And I think a lot of the problems arise from government policy and giving all the power to one person who is, I don't know, your brother or your brother's friend or whatever and letting him have all the power and then him doing whatever he can to maximize his profit...
SIEGEL: So Sara wanted to respond to that.
SARA: I just wanted to add that it's not purely Qatar government's fault. It's also the other side where the migrant workers come from. It's these companies, the way they operate is that they trick them, they put them into debt, they come here and they're basically stuck. Second is, I think by 2022, Qatar has to fix this problem of migrant workers. If they want to present an image to the Western world, they have to present Western ideals of human rights.
SIEGEL: Saba(ph), you're from India, which is where many of the construction workers are from also. What do you think about their relationship to Qatari society.
SABA: Well, I would say that they're highly dependent on countries such as Qatar and many others that are developing. So for people like me and many other families, we find the necessity to go to some countries where our potential would actually be tapped. But the country should make sure that, you know, that these people are actually being treated fairly.
SIEGEL: The two Qatari students were outspoken about the conditions migrants face in their country and the government's response. You heard Noor. Here's her fellow Qatari, 19-year-old Mohammed.
MOHAMMED: When we're talking about the migration issue, there was some basis - I do not agree with the sponsorship program. I must make this clear. I do believe that is restricting them from basic rights they should have the right - any right that I have that he is deprived from is some kind of class differentiation, which should not exist.
SIEGEL: A right, for example, to return home and come back?
MOHAMMED: To return home, for example. This is the main concern. If the worker does not feel that he is content with the place that he is working, then he should have the right to leave.
SIEGEL: The students' professor, Mehran Kamrava, says Qatar didn't calculate the potential long-term, unintended consequences of importing American higher education to Doha.
KAMRAVA: What happens, in 10, 20 years when you have a sizable alumni that have been educated by Georgetown University? Do they not ask questions that are inconsistent with nondemocratic political system?
SIEGEL: And here's another version of the same question. Northwestern's campus in Qatar is devoted to communications and journalism, and the program is first-rate. We went to the center city neighborhood where migrant workers live with a team of students who'd reported on that neighborhood all year long. Yesterday, thanks to the Northwestern journalism students, we heard from some of the workers who live there.
Can Qatar educate young journalists to world-class standards and maintain what Jan Keulen, a long-time Dutch Middle East correspondent, describes as a docile local press? Keulen says Qatari media observe a red line around some subjects, for example, security, religion and the monarchy.
JAN KEULAN: The real problem is that nobody knows exactly where the red line is, so there's a lot of self-censorship.
SIEGEL: Keulen was director of the state-controlled Doha Center for Media Freedom until he was fired this year having been given, he says, no reason for his dismissal. It probably didn't help his position that the center had publicized the prosecution of a Qatari poet named Mohammed al-Ajami. Ajami wrote a poem expressing the wish that his country's leaders might go the way of other leaders ousted in the Arab Spring.
KEULAN: Apparently the emir, or members of the royal family, were offended by it. So he was first sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. After appealing, he got 15 years. Now, this case was seen by human rights organizations in the world over as outrageous. If you wanted to know something about this, you have to go, you know, listen to the BBC or...
SIEGEL: You can forget about Qatari media telling you.
SIEGEL: Having lost his job, Jan Keulen will have to leave Qatar. He, too, is a migrant worker.
Nearly all Qataris are Sunni Muslim and adhere to the conservative Wahhabi school that dominates in neighboring Saudi Arabia. And while you might not feel that at the cosmopolitan Education City, it is unmistakable at the larger Qatar University where American political scientist Justin Gengler is a researcher. The campus is segregated. Separate buildings for men and women. In the co-ed library building, the elevators are segregated.
JUSTIN GENGLER: You can see here when we step in that there will be buttons that say, men's floor, women's floor, men not allowed. Very sort of alarmist signage. So you'll see here, for instance in red letters: Men's Library, Women's Library. They make it very clear where you're allowed to go and where you're not allowed to go.
SIEGEL: There have been setbacks to Qatar's top-down drive to modernize that are evident here. A few years ago, the country imposed English as the language of instruction. But very low test scores have led them to reintroduce Arabic as at least an option. That's a step in favor of tradition.
What about the tradition of the monarchy or eagerness for political reform? Well, Justin Gengler's research surveys suggest that eager is too strong a word. For example, the monarchy has promised an elected local legislature, a Shura Council, for years.
GENGLER: We've asked people in a survey, for example, one of the questions we asked about was if the Shura Council were elected would it be a good thing or a bad thing. And something like 98 percent of people said it would be a good thing.
SIEGEL: But since elections have always been postponed, what does that 98 percent favorability rating mean?
GENGLER: It doesn't mean that I'm willing to sort of fight and to put myself out there to advocate that. Yeah, if it happens, great. If not, you know, we'll sort of see.
SIEGEL: There are reasons for that lack of urgency. Gengler says the government and the ruling al-Thani family, opaque as their decision-making may be, feel the pulse of the people and they're adaptable. For example, conservative Qataris were appalled by public drinking at the posh Pearl development where well-heeled expats live. So, it was banned. No need for public hearings or legislation.
And as Professor Kamrava of Georgetown points out, the Qatari college student who finds his country's political institutions stifling soon becomes a college graduate with a stake in the status quo.
KAMRAVA: Oftentimes we end up with alumni at age 21, 22 that graduate from these American branch campuses and get multiple job offers, earning more money than someone like me makes, for example. And as a result, they get absorbed into the economic mainstream in a way that doesn't leave any time for political questions to be asked.
SIEGEL: Nor a strong personal interest, you're saying. One is well taken care of at that point.
KAMRAVA: Very much so, very much so.
SIEGEL: The wealth that pays generous benefits and delivers high-paying jobs for young Qataris is derived from Liquefied Natural Gas. The LNG and the money are expected to keep flowing for a few decades. But Qataris are thinking about life after hydrocarbons. We'll hear about that tomorrow.