Awash in Qatari money, have US campuses become incubators for Doha’s interests?
Inside storyCMU received $301 million from Qatar between 2020 and 2023.

Awash in Qatari money, have US campuses become incubators for Doha’s interests?

The Gulf kingdom has lavished billions on US higher education as it seeks soft power, but some allege the money may also be fueling anti-Israel and anti-Jewish trends at schools

Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh students held a rally at CMU chanting antisemitic, anti-Zionist, anti-capitalist tropes. (Photo by David Rullo)
Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh students held a rally at CMU chanting antisemitic, anti-Zionist, anti-capitalist tropes. (Photo by David Rullo)

One will not find many Qatari flags fluttering in College Station, the town that Texas A&M University calls home. The tiny Middle Eastern state does not have its name on any of the buildings across the school’s sprawling campus, nor are those of Qatar’s ruling sheikhs engraved in Legacy Hall at the Jon L. Hagler Center, where the university’s major supporters are recognized.

According to public documents, though, the land-grant university is awash in Qatari money. Between 2015 and 2023, $404 million worth of Doha’s cash made its way into school coffers, according to a federal register. Data recently obtained by a watchdog through the courts appear to show that the school actually received tens of millions more.

The Aggies are hardly alone. According to a 2022 study, Qatar contributed $4.7 billion to dozens of academic institutions across the United States between 2001 and 2021. Some of the amounts are classified as “gifts” while others are labeled as “restricted agreements.”

In recent months, as institutions of higher education across the US have been rocked by anti-Israel protests and allegations of inaction or apathy in the face of antisemitic rhetoric or worse, Qatar’s outlays have come under increased scrutiny over the role they may play in influencing attitudes toward the Jewish state in academia.

“Qatar’s goal is not to promote antisemitic or pro-Palestinian messages, I believe, but antisemitism and pro-Palestinian sentiments are byproducts of policies convenient for them,” said Ariel Admoni, a PhD student at Bar Ilan University who specializes in foreign and domestic relations of Qatar and the Arabian Gulf.

The 2022 study, conducted by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), argues that as funding from Middle Eastern countries increases – and becomes less transparent to the public – certain campuses experience campaigns to silence academics, an erosion of democratic values, and a lack of response to attacks on students’ freedom of expression.

Using statistical analysis, the authors posited a correlation between schools that receive foreign funding and antisemitic or anti-Israel rhetoric, as well as allegations of antisemitic activity.

According to the research, universities receiving the largest sums from Qatar have shown a willingness to align with anti-democratic norms fostered by repressive Middle Eastern petrostates, such as intolerance of certain types of speech. Oftentimes, these standards dovetail with movements in academia tamping down on freedom of expression in the name of creating a safe space for multicultural inclusion.

However, critics say that the commitment to inclusion stops where support for Zionism or the Jewish community begins, with the result being an atmosphere on many of the top campuses in the US where Jews and Israel supporters feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Academic investments

Universities are supposed to report foreign investments, and the data is made public by the US Department of Education, which has a database online. Records published by the department show the breadth and depth of Qatari investments in US higher education.

Among other schools, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh received $301 million from Qatar between 2020 and 2023. The University of Virginia received $125 million between 2019 and 2023, and Georgetown University received $210 million between 2015 and 2023, according to the federal register.

Harvard, which has been embroiled in an antisemitism scandal that led to its president’s resignation, has taken over $8 million from Qatar since 2020.

At the top of the list is Cornell, which has received a whopping $1.5 billion from Qatar since 2015.

Nearly every country appears on the Department of Education database, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. That includes Israel, though the amounts, which are rarely more than a few hundred thousand dollars, are almost always tied to research agreements in life sciences and rarely come from the government itself.

Other countries give heftier sums, which have come with their own questions. In 2021 Saudi Arabia provided $74 million to the University of Idaho and a year later gave $47 million to Chapman University. Both amounts were reported as tuition fees or guarantees for Saudi nationals.

Germany is another country that has thrown money at schools, such as the $1.2 billion it gave to the University of Pennsylvania in 2018 alone. In 2021, US President Joe Biden, who situated a namesake think tank at Penn and was paid nearly $1 million by the school in 2018 and 2019, named its president as ambassador to Germany.

Public conversations in the past had focused on Chinese money and influence flowing into US universities, which also reach astronomical amounts, such as contracts worth over $140 million paid to New York University between 2020 and 2023.

Qatari connections go back decades

According to Admoni, Qatar’s links to American academia date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Qataris utilize the academic institution as an unofficial arm of the government, providing a platform where they can convey messages not officially attributed to them,” he said.

Much of the money comes from the Qatar Foundation, which was set up to advance education and Arab culture within Qatar and to “promote and engage in dialogue internationally to address and influence global topics,” according to a fact sheet. The fund’s landmark project is Education City in Doha, which hosts satellite campuses of six American universities, including Texas A&M, Cornell and Georgetown.

The foundation is headed by Moza Bint Nasser, mother of the Qatari emir, who has been asked repeatedly to use her high profile to intercede on behalf of hostages being held in Gaza, including by Sara Netanyahu. Online and in public appearances, though, Bint Nasser has been critical of Israel’s war against Hamas and silent on the hostages.

“If the government wants to communicate a message, they organize an academic conference, set up a forum with symposiums in the capital of Qatar, and within it, statements may be made, such as expressing dissatisfaction towards the United States by the speakers,” Admoni said. “The academic framework allows them to articulate things indirectly. In other words, Qatar pursues its own agenda, and for Qatar, an academic institution is a legitimate tool to achieve their foreign policy goals.”

Universities justify their ongoing collaboration with Qatar and other schools by citing the need for international dialogue, mutual cultural enrichment, and the enhancement of academic research through social diversity. Academics in the United States argue that bringing the spirit of American academia to places like Doha will strengthen liberal values and academic freedom in the face of dictatorial societies, constituting a form of soft power diplomacy.

Kenneth Marcus, who leads the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which provides legal aid to students experiencing antisemitism on campus, said the cross-cultural exchanges can often bring students “indoctrinated with anti-Jewish propaganda” to campus, or send American students to places where they absorb antisemitic attitudes.

“They may come in peace, but also in many cases, bring with them cultural attitudes towards Israel and Jewish communities in a way that is harmful in the United States,” he said of foreign students. “While we should welcome all people into our country, we should be very concerned about those foreign students who are bringing anti-Jewish, and in some cases anti-American attitudes.”

“US students are increasingly studying on Qatari and other Gulf State campuses, which don’t have even remotely the academic freedom standards that we have in the United States,” he added. “Where there is reportedly a very high level of indoctrination, so that American students come back from foreign campuses having been propagandized and indoctrinated for a semester or a year, this then becomes a significant aspect of the climate at their home institutions.”

Rising concerns

On February 8, Texas A&M’s Board of Regents voted to close its Qatar campus, citing “heightened instability in the Middle East,” an oblique reference to Israel’s war with Hamas.

Many, however, believe the move was tied to questions that have emerged over its ties to Qatar, particularly concerns voiced by conservatives that nuclear secrets could be leaked via the partnership.

“When Gulf states invest in American universities, they might have a variety of motivations, including not only influencing the United States, but also building up their own educated citizenry. There are undoubtedly, though, a host of ramifications of these partnerships,” said Marcus, who served as assistant secretary for civil rights at the US Department of Education from 2018 to 2020.

He noted that over the last 20 years, anti-Israel attitudes in academia had expanded, having once been largely isolated to Middle Eastern studies programs but now being present in a wide range of fields of study. “Even mental health programs, psychology programs, and medical schools are now badly infected with anti-Zionism,” he said.

As campuses have become battlegrounds over Israeli and Palestinian narratives in the wake of the October 7 massacre of 1,200 people in southern Israel by Hamas terrorists, many have found it hard to ignore Qatar’s university funding and what that funding could buy.

Though presenting itself as a fair mediator in indirect talks between Israel and Hamas, including over terms for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 and still held in Gaza, Qatar has long hosted Hamas’s leadership and has been harshly critical of Israel. In a statement released as Hamas terrorists were carrying out atrocities across southern Israel, Doha declared Israel “solely responsible for the ongoing escalation” and justified the terror onslaught.

“The Qataris excel at leveraging the Palestinian issue to draw attention to what suits them,” Admoni said. “In Western countries, particularly within educated circles, the pro-Palestinian struggle is perceived as a ‘convenient’ cause. Consequently, from the Qatari perspective, this portrayal positions them favorably on what they consider to be the right side of public opinion, especially among the youth.”

Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Khaled Mashal in Doha, October 17, 2016 (Qatar government handout)
According to Marcus, the draw of Qatari money also means school administrators may be less willing to call out antisemitism on campus.

“It’s not at all surprising when US administrators are reluctant to impose the same discipline on foreign students when they’re getting foreign money because there is a range of pressures on them to avoid doing the right thing,״ he said.

Doha’s ‘pragmatism’

As shown by the fact that it hosts both a major American military base and a Taliban embassy, Doha excels at maintaining alliances while navigating shifting and often discordant interests.

Admoni noted that when Qatar was accused of funding the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in 2017, Doha launched a charm offensive aimed at keeping Washington in its court, including cozying up to Jewish leaders.

“They are very pragmatic and cynical politicians, and if they have a global goal like appearing as those who solve the Palestinian issue, they will do whatever it takes for that,” he said.

“The Qataris aim to be tone-setters, active participants in the discourse, exerting influence wherever they can impact and where decision-makers gather,” Admoni added. “This involves investing in global sports, culture, politics, and academia to establish ‘soft power’ influence. It’s a form of soft diplomacy, ensuring that they cannot be ignored.”

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael. PJC

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