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I remember the day; it was February 4, 1998. I got off of the plane, went down the stairs to the tarmac and walked a few hundred yards into what looked like a giant box. It was the airport in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and I had just begun what would be one of the most transformative times in my life: living in the Middle East.

Fast forward 13 years and not only am I a lot older, but the Middle East has changed dramatically. We have watched dictators fall, rebellions take hold and uprisings fail. The entire region is gripped by Mubarak’s trial and Qatar’s plans to host the World Cup in 2022.

But it’s more than just these events that have changed. Here in the Gulf, entire nations have been built out of virtually nothing. When I first came to the Gulf way back in 1998, Doha was a place people avoided – there was almost nothing there. Dubai was beginning to work its way up, but there was no Palm Island, and no world’s tallest tower. In a matter of just over a decade, the region has transformed itself. doha skyline

This photo was taken through the sea-salt-streaked windows of the Museum of Islamic Art, a gorgeous building designed by renowned architect IM Pei. The W Hotel is one of those towers, and mingles with the headquarters for European banks, American law firms and Middle East oil companies. This is a land of extremes – soaring temperatures, tall buildings and high expectations.

How will it all play out? It’s hard to guess. The Gulf, for the most part, has been fairly resistant to the protests that have gripped much of the region. Neighboring Yemen is mired in a conflict driven not only by political stalemate, but also extreme poverty, and Bahrain faces ongoing dialogue and elections. Meanwhile, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates seem to be bastions of stability. But what lies below that?

As I meet with various people engaged in civil society in Qatar, it is clear that it is an active sector driven mostly by the Qatar Foundation, a great organization run by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. The Qatar Foundation runs programs inside and outside Qatar, and also runs Education City. Education City houses campuses from several well-known U.S. institutions, including Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. These schools offer degree programs for local students, as well as study abroad opportunities for U.S. students.

On the Vital Voices Policy Advocates program, we’ll be working with our local Businesswomen’s Network Hub organization, the Qatari Businesswomen Association. While the project is still being finalized, we will likely be addressing the gap between women’s educational attainment and entrance to the workforce. Here in Qatar, about 65% of college graduates are women, while only about 25% of the people entering the workforce are women. So where do all these women with college degrees go? What barriers are they coming up against that make them choose to not enter the workforce? Are there other pressures affecting their decision? These are some of the questions that the program may seek to answer.

Please look for my next entry from Kuwait!

For more information on the program, visit our website. To help support this and other MENA programs at Vital Voices, please contribute to our MENA Fund.