The State of Qatar has implemented a program to revamp its education system. It is one of the few countries in the Arab Middle East that is trying to modernize its curriculum and remove some of the more controversial elements from its schools. The old system emphasized religion and memorization rather than knowledge and thought. Since 2004, the Qatari curriculum includes more math, science, computer skills and language training.
Changing the focus of education from religious indoctrination to useful skills and college preparation is a difficult process in conservative Muslim countries. Older members of the religious establishment are loathe to introduce anything considered to be "un-Islamic." Only because of the direction of the country's ruler Shaykh Hamid bin Khalifah Al Thani has it even been remotely successful.
There has been a similar effort ongoing in Qatar's larger neighbor to the west, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis began their curriculum change just last year. As in Qatar, this type of change requires direction from the highest level - the king.
Saudi King 'Abdallah named his son-in-law Prince Faysal bin 'Abdallah bin Muhammad Al Sa'ud as education minister. The king also appointed a woman to be Prince Faysal's deputy minister for girls' education. Remember, this is a country where women still cannot drive automobiles. She is the first woman to be appointed to a post this high in the Saudi government.
The Saudi education system has been an issue between the United States and the kingdom for years. Since 15 of the 19 hijackers that perpetrated the September 11, 2001 attacks were products of the Saudi education system, Americans have demanded reforms in the anti-Western, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian curriculum.
To be fair, the curriculum also targets many non-Wahhabi Muslim sects as well. With the expansion of the religious leadership council and the appointment of Prince Faysal as education minister, there may be hope for change.
The U.S. State Department has been working since at least 2003 with the Saudi Ministry of Education to alter the curriculum. Although Saudi Arabia has claimed it has changed the textbooks by editing out the more offensive sections, studies over the last three years show that is not entirely the case.
Qatar may be an easier case. The curriculum was certainly heavily Islamic, but not nearly as full of vitriol as the Saudi system. There was, however, real contention over the teaching of music. The government did back down on the integration issue - schools are still segregated by gender, and there is an agreement to emphasize Islamic and Arab history.
Qatar has begun to bring its school system much more in line with international standards of education. It is a good start - in fact, they are significantly ahead of the Saudis in this regard. As an American ally in the Gulf, it is good news.