Qatar's oil and gas wealth fuels ambition for learning
- 20 November 2012
- From the section Business
Can you turn the riches from oil and gas into knowledge? That's the epic experiment being attempted by the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, as it plans for a future after the oil and gas run out.
It's not just its own future that it wants to influence.
At an education summit in the country's capital, Doha, it launched an initiative to inject momentum into the faltering international efforts to provide an education for all children.
The Educate A Child project aims to reach some of the 61 million children without access to even the most basic education. Almost half of these are living in areas troubled by war and conflict.
The project, announced at the annual World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), is an alliance of United Nations agencies, charities, policymakers and grassroots projects in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Last month a sobering report from Unesco showed that the millennium pledge to provide universal primary education by 2015 was likely to be missed by a wide margin. In some countries the problem is getting worse rather than better.
Launching the project, Unesco special envoy and wife of Qatar's emir, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, said that "behind the numbers were real-life stories" and that too many children were being "robbed of their right to an education".
The initiative aims to provide education for "hard to reach" children, marginalised by poverty, social exclusion or the disruptions of war and violence. Millions of refugees are at risk of losing their schooling as well as their homes.
Irina Bokova, director general of Unesco, argued that education had become "the big issue of the 21st Century", central to bridging the gaps between wealth and poverty, tolerance and intolerance.
The chairman of the WISE event, Dr Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, said "standing still is not an option when we know progress is possible" - and he said that when "islands of excellence" had been identified in education they should be shared and replicated.
Gordon Brown, UN envoy for global education and former UK prime minister, called on the summit to support Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani teenage girl who was shot after campaigning for girls' right to education.
The Educate A Child project was a centrepiece of the WISE summit, which brought together an eclectic mix of education officials, business leaders, heads of aid agencies, academics and social activists. It even had Robert de Niro for the video voiceover.
Traditional Arab robes sat alongside the corporate suits. Gordon Brown shared a stage with Sudanese supermodel, Alek Wek. The head of the Comic Relief charity sat beside the education minister of Chad.
According to Indian educator Madhav Chavan what made this event different is that it brought the education debate closer to the global south and east.
Dr Chavan, who was awarded the WISE Prize for his work supporting the education of impoverished families in India, said that too often a "global agenda" was really a western perspective.
But the WISE event is also inextricably linked to Qatar's own ambitions for education.
In the next two decades, it wants to use its oil and gas riches to create a "knowledge-based economy" - so that when the natural resources run out it will have a sustainable, long-term future.
It's an example of a country using educational investment as a deliberate instrument of economic policy.
The most striking physical evidence of this is the huge Education City complex on the fringes of the capital.
There are nine newly-built universities, most of them partnerships with major US and European universities.
It's not so much a commitment in bricks and mortar as in marble and high-end design, as the funding for this project is on an epic scale. It's staking billions on the idea that a research base can be built almost from scratch. It's recycling oil and gas money into knowledge.
A new medical training and research centre being built here has an endowment of $7.9bn (£5bn) - which would make it one of the world's richest higher education institutions.
It will take years to know whether this Education City gamble has succeeded and whether innovation and intellectual curiosity can be built as easily as a university campus.
This instant university sector is the academic parallel of the accelerated development of the capital, Doha.
This is a city in fast forward, with skyscrapers and prestige buildings climbing on every patch of dusty ground. The rush-hour roads are jammed with new cars like a barely moving car showroom.
But this is a tiny, wealthy pearl in a fragile setting.
The opulent hotels along the Doha waterfront face across the Persian Gulf towards the coast of Iran.
It's a region with all the ingredients for volatility.
The Arab Spring showed how quickly political foundations could be shaken, particularly by a young population frustrated by unemployment and a lack of opportunities.
And as delegates gathered in Doha for the education conference, Gulf state leaders were also in the city, debating their response to the war in Syria.
This also highlights another aspect of the WISE summit.
Qatar has cultivated the fine art of soft power, projecting its voice onto the international stage.
And this international outreach in funding education projects in Africa and Asia might be seen as a form of philanthropic diplomacy.
It runs alongside the high-profile investments in sport, such as hosting the World Cup in 2022 and buying Paris St Germain football club.
There's also a media presence with the Al Jazeera television news channel. And in London, the Qataris have literally bought the pinnacle of the property market with the Shard.
Side by side with these networks of power, were the stories of real-life people, also gathered in the WISE conference halls.
Suad Mohamad, who had grown up in a refugee camp in Kenya, was sitting a few rows away from the UN heads and international power brokers. In her case, the scale of the financial barrier was persuading her father that it was worth staying at school, rather than getting married.
She managed to win that argument and changed her own fate - now she's the head teacher of the refugee camp school where she managed to carry on studying.
Dr Chavan, who began his work in the slums of Mumbai, said: "The world isn't divided between the haves and have nots, but the gives and give nots."