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Arab Students Caught in Regional Conflict With Qatar

Dana al-Mansouri, a third-year Qatari student at an Emirati medical school, will not be able to take her final exam this year because of the United Arab Emirate’s decision to break diplomatic relations with her country and cease all other contact.

“The decision was taken during the final exam,” she said. “I received a phone call from the UAE Ministry of Interior. They called me an unwanted person in this country and told me I had to leave within 14 days.”

Al-Mansouri tried to contact her university’s administration, asking them to hold all of her exams before the 14 days were up, but the administration apologetically said that it could not do so. Al-Mansouri could not fly directly back to Qatar because airlines had already stopped flying between the two countries. She bought a ticket to Oman on Oman Air, but two days later the UAE also prevented Qataris from entering or leaving the UAE through Oman, leaving al-Mansouri stranded.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain decided to break diplomatic relations with Qatar. The countries said they were taking the action because of Qatar’s interference in their internal affairs and its support of terrorism and Iran, viewed as an enemy of most Arab countries. (Qatar has denied support of terrorism or meddling in other countries’ internal affairs and asked its accusers to provide evidence.)  The countries are also closing all land and sea connections to Qatar and blocking all Qataris from entering their territories. They also want to prevent their own citizens from traveling to and residing in Qatar. Egypt and Jordan subsequently took similar actions, followed by Libya, Yemen, Chad, Mauritania, Comoros, and Senegal. But the second round of countries breaking relations with Qatar did not ask their nationals to leave Qatar or Qataris to depart their territories.

The rift followed the broadcast of statements attributed to Qatar’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, last month, in which he said that it is unwise to antagonize Iran and refused to escalate the dispute with that country.

Although politicians started the conflict, its effects are rippling out to Qatari students and professors abroad. Like al-Mansouri, many Qatari university students in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain will have to quit their studies and immediately return to their country.  The abrupt change comes at a time when more Arab students are studying within the region instead of going to Western universities. (See related article: “Some Arab Youth Study Abroad Close to Home.”)

Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini students and professors in Qatar are also at risk of having to terminate their studies. Although Qatar has not tried to force the citizens of the countries that have blockaded it to leave its territory, many of those citizens are concerned. Sawsan Mohammed, a rehabilitation specialist and doctoral student, is a Qatari citizen, but both of her sons carry the nationality of one of the boycotting Gulf countries. One of them studies medicine in Qatar, while the second studies engineering.

“We are all concerned,” she said. “My sons are taking their exams. If they return to their country they might lose their studies, as they would be unable to go back to Qatar again.”

Qatar University’s Faculty of Engineering published a message on its official Twitter account reassuring foreign students and saying that it wanted to support all students from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain.

Still, some professors from the boycotting countries working in Qatar have already begun to respond to the decision of their governments by leaving the country. On the day after the boycott, Musa al-Zahrani, a Saudi professor of Islamic philosophy at Qatar University, wrote a farewell e-mail to his students, in which he said, “I have spent three years at this university, and I am proud of what Qatar University has given to me.” He said he felt he had had nothing but good relations with his students and enjoyed being with them.

Al-Zahrani’s departure prompted his students to start a Twitter campaign pleading with him to stay. The campaign had an Arabic hashtag that meant: “No to the departure of Musa AlZahrani.”

“Politics should be kept away from education,” said Nujud Mohammed, one of Al-Zahrani’s students at Qatar University’s College of Sharia and Islamic Studies. “Losing a professor like him is damaging.”

Noura al-Hajri, a third-year Qatari student at Qatar University’s College of Health Sciences, agrees with Mohammed about the negative impact of professors’ departure. “The decision forced qualified professors to stop teaching at our universities. It also compels fellow students to drop out and leave the country, many of whom are about to graduate,” she said.

Despite the negative impact of the diplomatic rift on students and professors, no organized movement has emerged to protest the academic damage being done. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have warned their citizens not to display empathy with Qatar, and said anyone who does so will be prosecuted.

“The citizens of the countries in the dispute, including students, should have been isolated from any political disagreements or conflicts,” said Shafiq al-Ghabra, a professor of political sciences at Kuwait University and the former president of the American University of Kuwait. “But, there is still time to resolve the disputes in a diplomatic and political framework away from citizens, including students and professors.”

Yesterday, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain issued statements confirming that they would take into consideration humanitarian factors, and possibly exempt families with mixed citizenship who risk being split up. But none of the countries that have broken relations with Qatar have suggested exempting students or professors.


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