Why you should care
U.S. and U.K. universities tackle the question of funding from Middle Eastern countries seeking to buy influence.
When Matthew Hedges, a Durham University Ph.D. student, set off on a two-week trip to the United Arab Emirates, he was following a tradition of British academics conducting research in the Arabian Peninsula. But when he tried to leave Dubai in May he was detained, held in solitary confinement in Abu Dhabi for six months and sentenced to life in prison for spying.
Hedges’ sentencing triggered a rare public spat between the United Kingdom and one of its closest Middle East allies. Both sides now appear keen to move on after the UAE pardoned Hedges in November. But British academia may find it more difficult to return to “business as usual.” The Hedges case revived Western scrutiny of the Gulf — which has periodically been criticized over labor conditions and human rights abuses — and the rewarding relationship U.K. universities have long enjoyed with the oil-rich states.
Some U.S. institutions are also reassessing their ties with Gulf entities in the wake of the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad. A preliminary report by MIT into its links with Saudi donors and sponsors found no reason to end the relationships. But Harvard has chosen not to renew a five-year fellowship program with the MiSK Foundation, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s charity. In the wake of the journalist’s killing, U.S. senators said they believed MBS, the kingdom’s de facto leader, ordered the operation against Khashoggi. MBS has denied any involvement in the killing and Riyadh has blamed it on a rogue operation.
The debate about university links to the Gulf underscores how the repercussions of the Hedges and Khashoggi cases are being felt far beyond the political and corporate worlds. For Western governments, the dilemma is to appear robust in their responses to the incidents while maintaining relations with key allies. But for academics it is particularly sensitive as they seek to balance their traditional positions as defenders of human rights and freedom of expression with long-standing financial, educational and research relationships.
“It’s going to make us all a lot more conscious of, and careful about, how we look for money, how we accept money,” says William E. Granara, director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “The latest incident is going to keep us all on our toes.”
Confident, assertive and keen to exert soft power, Gulf countries have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into top academic institutions in the U.K. and U.S. for years.
Between them, the six Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman — have provided $2.2 billion to U.S. universities since the beginning of 2012 to June this year, an analysis of the U.S. Education Department’s Foreign Gifts and Contracts Report shows. The Gulf total represents just under a quarter of all foreign gifts and contracts over that period. Qatar, the world’s richest state in per capita terms, led with $1.3 billion, followed by Saudi Arabia with $580.5 million and the UAE with $213 million.
The figures include funding from state oil companies, such as Saudi Aramco and Qatar Petroleum, Gulf universities and cultural missions. Much of the money also goes to student fees — Riyadh funded about 110,000 U.S. scholarships for Saudis between 2005 and 2015.
There is less transparency over foreign funding to U.K. institutions. But Gulf entities have donated tens of millions of pounds to the country’s leading institutions, primarily to their Middle East centers. Research by academics Jonas Bergan Draege and Martin Lestra, published in the Middle East Law and Governance journal in 2015, estimated that Gulf entities provided at least 70 million pounds to U.K. institutions between 1997 and 2007.
They [Gulf donors] are creating a sphere of influence at universities.
Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor, London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre
Oxford says it has received 17.7 million pounds from Gulf states since 2000, excluding donations to individual colleges, with more than 6 million pounds each from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. About 1 percent of its total donations came from the Middle East. That also excludes funding for the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, which is described as a “recognized independent center” of the university, built with a donation of 20 million pounds from King Fahd, the late Saudi monarch.
Cambridge University received 8 million pounds from Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in 2008 to establish a center for Islamic studies, and gifts totaling about 7 million pounds from Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, Oman’s ruler, for the establishment of two professorships.
Richard K. Lester, MIT’s associate provost, told the university’s newsletter that his recommendation not to terminate its ties to Saudi donors was a “tough call because none of us wants to lend legitimacy to grotesque actions like the assassination of Khashoggi.”
“But the judgment I have made [in the preliminary report] is that, on balance, the benefits provided by the work we’re doing outweigh the impact of any kind of reputational support our activities may provide to those in Saudi Arabia responsible for these malevolent actions,” Lester said.
Other academics are more skeptical. “I doubt it will be business as usual,” says one close to the Hedges case, “and nor should it be.”
There is also a deeper question that some academics say needs to be asked — the extent to which Gulf funding may influence research on the Middle East, a region where some topics are taboo and critics and dissidents are jailed. Hedges was researching the sensitive subject of military development in the Gulf after the 2011 Arab uprisings.
“It’s not easy to track. But if centers want to safeguard funding streams, then they might either commission research that falls within a specific remit and perhaps not commission research that doesn’t, or individual academics might feel they don’t wish to cross certain lines in case the funding is jeopardized,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East.
Ulrichsen is a former co-director of the London School of Economics’ (LSE) Kuwait program on development, governance and globalization in the Gulf states, a 10-year scheme launched with a donation of 5.7 million pounds from a Kuwaiti foundation in 2007. It was renewed for another five years in 2017 with a grant of 2.7 million pounds.
Ulrichsen says the only time he had an issue as head of the LSE program was when Kuwaiti donors called to complain about an article he had written about protests in the Gulf state in 2012. But a year later, he was denied entry at Dubai Airport after he wrote articles critical of Bahrain and the UAE. The LSE responded to Ulrichsen’s exclusion by canceling a conference in the UAE.
Ulrichsen believes “a lot of people may self-censor” to avoid a similar fate.
It was not the first time the LSE was plunged into a controversy over Middle East money. In 2011, as Libyans rebelled against Moammar Gadhafi, a scandal erupted at the university over 1.5 million pounds it received from the Gadhafi Foundation run by the late dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi. The LSE’s director resigned over the affair.
The LSE also received a commitment of 9 million pounds in 2006, mostly from the UAE’s Emirates Foundation, to establish a center for Middle East studies, and has a 2.5 million pound lecture theater named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the nation’s founder.
Professor Toby Dodge, director of that center from 2013 to 2018, says, “We’ve all learnt the lessons of what you don’t do” after the Libya debacle. “Our pluralistic, overlapping, critical research is beyond reproach,” he says. “It has furthered the academic study of the region, it hasn’t in any way led to self-censorship.”
But, he adds, “you have to be incredibly careful.”
Proponents of Gulf funding say universities’ relations with Gulf states have enhanced academic ties, enabled the transfer of skills and fostered collaborative research. Others point to long-standing ties between Gulf royals and U.K. and U.S. institutions, with many attending British and American universities, as well as military academies such as Sandhurst in the U.K., which has fostered philanthropy from Arab alumni.
“U.K. universities are the oldest Gulf think tanks in the world,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE academic and commentator, who has defended the UAE’s position in the Hedges case.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., Riyadh ramped up its foreign scholarship program with the aim of raising the education of young Saudis and exposing them to different cultures. It was also considered an important part of the kingdom’s efforts to rehabilitate its reputation through the students’ interaction with Western societies.
Harvard’s Granara acknowledges that donors may have national agendas but says “universities are pretty clear when they take money that there are no strings attached.” But other academics believe this rule is not always adhered to, particularly where funding goes to Middle East research centers.
“Universities are meant to uphold certain values and objectivity, and funding from Gulf countries, especially those notorious for violating human rights, tarnishes the reputation of these centers,” says Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi critic and visiting professor at the LSE’s Middle East Centre. “They [Gulf donors] are creating a sphere of influence at universities.… It’s an indirect influence, rather than a direct one.”
A British academic says that when he published an article on a Gulf state, a senior member of his U.K. university emailed him reminding him the subject was “a donor and longtime partner for the university, ‘so please bear that in mind.’” The academic, who asked that neither he nor the institution be identified, later left the university. “There was no doubt I would have to leave on a moral basis,” the academic says. “Would you accept a grant from a Kremlin official and name a building after him? Obviously not.”
A similar debate has been simmering in Australia amid concerns about Chinese influence after a series of multimillion-dollar donations to universities by Chinese businessmen with close ties to Beijing, including Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Chau Chak Wing, chairman of the Kingold Group.
There has been little research into whether foreign funding influences British universities. But the paper by Bergan Draege and Lestra found that before the 2011 Arab uprisings, Gulf-funded British institutions were less likely to raise issues of democracy and human rights, and “much less” issues of gender. Instead, they focused more on topics such as youth unemployment and education.
After the 2011 protests, all institutions paid more attention to democracy and human rights, but those funded by Gulf entities “continued to be somewhat less likely to raise these issues.” Bergan Draege, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, says that does not imply self-censorship or that the work is more credible at self-funded universities.
“The main difference is more of a focus toward the donor countries, and the output targeting that country focuses less so on certain topics,” he says. “It emphasizes some of the issues and not other issues [gender rights and democracy]. We don’t know if there’s a direct causal link, though.”
An issue academics repeatedly refer to is dwindling state funding for British universities. The inquiry into the LSE’s Libya scandal said British universities have to embark on fundraising on “the international plane on a scale that until recently was relatively unknown.” It added: “This scale of global operation carries ethical and reputational risk.”
“The funding climate has changed so drastically over the past 10 to 15 years that they are almost forced to raise money elsewhere. And the Gulf has prioritized through their soft power two things — education and sport,” says Ulrichsen.
In recent years, numerous Western institutions have also established satellite campuses in the UAE and Qatar. U.S. universities Georgetown, Texas A&M and Northwestern, alongside Britain’s UCL, are among those with a presence in Doha. New York University and the Sorbonne have campuses in Abu Dhabi.
But not all academics are happy with the situation. After Hedges was sentenced, staff at Birmingham University supported an emergency union motion to boycott a new campus that opened in Dubai this year. The decision was made over concerns about staff safety and the university’s failure to “guarantee academic freedom” on the campus.
The relationships risk being further complicated by a bitter regional rift that pits Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar, with all sides bent on using their soft power to promote their message. The danger for academics is that their research and ties become politicized.
“There is a competition for influence globally between both sides of that dispute and that is fought out across London, Washington and the world, and that makes it difficult for anyone in academia or anyone else to steer a straight path,” Dodge says. “What I would do is not pick sides.”
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