Lessons in diplomacy get real for Rice students in Qatar

A dozen Rice students became diplomats during spring break, which they spent in Doha, Qatar, talking with their Arab peers about science diplomacy, the development of knowledge-based economies and other topics of interest to both.

The students took part in a colloquium titled “Public Diplomacy and Global Policymaking (PDGP) in the 21st Century” that set them across the table from undergraduates who study in Qatar; some were native Qataris, others were from India, Iran, Bosnia, Jordan and Syria, and several were visiting from France. The event was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, a program funded by the Qatar government to advance scientific research and education.

The event was concurrent with the Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy, co-sponsored by Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“The colloquium and trip were one-of-a-kind experiences that we hope will help the students understand how different cultures view the world, making them better global citizens and leaders,” said Kirstin Matthews, a Baker Institute fellow in science and technology policy and PDGP program co-director. She made the trip with Christene Kimmel, the Baker Institute’s director for development and PDGP co-director.

Over the week, students attended the stem cell conference, visited the United States Embassy and Al Jazeera and spent a day in the desert for sand duning and a barbecue. But most of their time was spent in conversation with their Qatari counterparts about a range of topics that also included cultural misconceptions, religion and faith and avenues toward international cooperation.

“We had formal discussions on topics we had chosen beforehand,” said Monica Matsumoto, a Brown College sophomore who led a discussion on democracy with two other Rice students. She said that because the number of participants was limited, it was easy to engage Qatari students away from the table – especially for her, as she speaks Arabic.

“Those are sometimes equally valuable discussions to have, outside of the formal conference, because that’s where the sharing of culture fosters real public diplomacy,” said Graham West, a Sid Richardson College senior and student director for the trip.

Discussions about democracy led to “some spirited debate,” Matsumoto said. “I had a private conversation with a couple of the girls. They weren’t actually Qatari, but were going to school there. And they were saying how – and they feel this is the case in a lot of countries – there’s no real basis for democracy yet. They don’t really think they’re ready.”

Wealth obtained from resources may have something to do with that, suggested Kareem Ayoub, a Lovett College senior. “The most striking contrast, at least for me, between the United States and Qatar is how much the Qataris are investing in their country,” he said. “Their economy is based predominately on oil and gas. The average per capita gross domestic product per Qatari national is $150,000 a year, which is well above ours. But the sheer investment they’re injecting into the system is intense because they have the capability.”

And they have the motivation, he said, because they know that someday the oil and gas will stop flowing. “One of our sessions was on knowledge-based economies and how Qatar needs to diversify if they want to adapt and survive in the future,” Ayoub said.

“A lot of this initiative is coming from their amir, who has made education a priority,” Matsumoto said. “They have a long-term plan to reach some stage of development by 2030.”

Some of that commitment flows to Education City, a facility in Doha that includes branch campuses run by American universities.

“It’s interesting because they have free health care, free education and a lot of them don’t need to work and they still get paid,” Matsumoto said. “But the amir said he doesn’t want his population to be spoiled.”

Ayoub, a bioengineering major, said a Rice education in science and engineering disciplines is nearly all-consuming. So he said it was refreshing that “when we brought up the topic of international collaboration and diplomacy in science, no one was really talking about the science. … That’s exactly what the PDGP program is trying to foster in creating future leaders who are cognizant of all of these factors surrounding, as the case example, science.”

The mix of students who went to Qatar this year was intentionally diverse – including majors in engineering, natural science, humanities and social science. Many of the participants were also underclassmen who can carry the program forward. “We hope to build a long-term partnership with the Qatar Foundation,” said Kimmel, who envisioned Rice and Education City as the two poles of an ongoing discussion, each hosting in alternate years.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.