Roots of American universities grow deeper in Qatar, drawing criticism

Carnegie Mellon University Qatar
Carnegie Mellon University Qatar | Asergeev.com

Many of the foreign universities in Qatar, a nation widely understood to support the foreign terrorist organization Hamas, are U.S. institutions of higher education, a long-standing venture that has drawn fire from critics questioning why American universities have a presence in the Arab nation.

“It is not possible to have academic freedom in an environment like Qatar. It can’t exist,” Herbert London, president of the London Center for Policy Research in New York and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told Gulf News Journal.

“When it comes to appointments, when it comes to money and when it comes to fundamental features of academic life, mainly the whole question of the free and open exchange of ideas, universities I think have compromised themselves by allowing the university to be put in a part of the world where these free conditions are not met,” London said.

Among the most notable U.S. institutions in Qatar are Carnegie Mellon, the Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Northwestern University and Texas A&M University.
Several of the universities contacted for this story did not respond with a comment.

These branch campuses aren’t new. In fact, their presence extends back to the 1990s when the Qatar Foundation embarked on its ambitious Education City initiative, says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute.

Each of the campuses specializes in a particular field that is broadly related to Qatar's own strategic interest, Ulrichsen told Gulf News Journal, and their very creation “constitutes a significant element of the collaborative networks vital to addressing the complex and interconnected public policy issues that have come to define regional and international affairs in the 21st century.”

On Capitol Hill, Qatar has drawn criticism from lawmakers and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., has urged the Obama administration to hold Qatar accountable for its continued financial and political support of Hamas. “Congressman Roskam believes that, in light of Qatar’s ongoing support for terrorism, the United States should reexamine its relationship with Doha. This extends to cautioning universities and other American organizations currently operating in Qatar, which could find themselves vulnerable to foreign exploitation by the regime. Until Qatar changes its disturbing behavior, the congressman will continue to press the administration on this critical issue,” Michael Shapiro, Roskam’s press secretary and policy adviser, wrote in an email to Gulf News Journal.

In addition, in March 2014, David Cohen, Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said, “Distressingly, Iran is not the only state that provides financial support for terrorist organizations. Most notably, Qatar, a long-time U.S. ally, has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability.”

For U.S. universities, the physical presence in Qatar puts them in a precarious position.

“Liberal arts schools face particular challenges in settings where freedom of thought and association is restricted,” Ulrichsen said. “With the reassertion of authoritarian control after the Arab Spring, branch campuses may struggle to balance the surge of interest in the region against local (and funder) sensitivities,” he said.

Meanwhile, various leaders of several U.S. organizations have called for American universities to at least reconsider their assciation with Qatar, if not leave Qatar.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, in the fall chastized Cornell’s branch location in Qatar, and the Zionist Organization of America demanded that the U.S. State Department declare Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism unless it severed support to Hamas. The ZOA also has called on any U.S. university, think tank or other institution to end their programs in the country.

Likewise, the American Association of University Professors and the Canadian Association of University Teachers said in a joint statement that as branch campuses from both countries continue to proliferate “in countries marked by authoritarian rule, basic principles of academic freedom, collegial governance, and nondiscrimination are less likely to be observed,” practices that the groups said “also threaten to affect the character of higher education in the United States and Canada.”

Nevertheless, big money in Qatar has spoken loudly to big American universities.

American branch campuses have been lured to the small, peninsular nation in the Middle East by the prospects associated with Qatar’s immense per-capita gross domestic product, which the World Bank said was worth more than $202 billion in 2014, representing a third of the world’s economy. The geographically small Qatar wields a mighty hefty money stick.

Add to that the fact that roughly 90 percent of Qatar’s 2.2 million people live in Doha and the potential for American branch campuses to attract local students becomes too great to ignore from a U.S. business standpoint. Some sources also point to the substantial donations that have been made to the private U.S. universities by the Qatar education foundation. Most recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities in early May signed an agreement with Qatar University to enhance QU’s academic and research portfolio.

Ulrichsen points out that there’s “the risk that global universities reinforce existing inequalities within higher education as the pattern of branch campuses in the Middle East overwhelmingly has favored prestige tie-ups with elite institutions.”

It’s an easy fix, according to London: “You either say we take the money and we compromise our values or we don’t take the money and then we’re not there, and frankly I think it should be the latter.”

Meanwhile, in addition to ongoing and controversial U.S. military operations in the country, other recent U.S. action could pose more challenges for American branch campuses in Qatar.

The FBI – which is investigating bribery and corruption at FIFA – now is also scrutinizing how soccer’s international governing body awarded Qatar and Russia hosting rights for the World Cup in 2022 and 2018, respectively.

Officials in both countries have denied wrongdoing in conducting their tournament bids, according to Reuters, and neither Qatar nor Russia is part of the charges filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against several FIFA officials.

Qatar – which has a limited football tradition -- reportedly is spending about $200 billion to build the stadiums and required infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. And money isn’t the only driving force behind retaining its hosting award: the desert country would be the first Arab state to host a World Cup

(Additional reporting by Tracy Rozens)

Organizations in this story

Carnegie Mellon University Qatar Al Luqta Street Ar-Rayyan, Al Rayyan

Qatar Foundation 1400 I St NW Doha, Doha - 20005

Qatar University University Roundabout Doha, Doha

Weill Cornell Medicine- Qatar Al Luqta Street Ar-Rayyan, Al Rayyan

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