by Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both tried to build up their soft power across the Middle East and North Africa, both states have also attempted to gain greater influence in the West. In particular they’ve targeted Western academia, a useful object as it allows them to promote their political narratives.
Since the 2000s, Western universities have received steadily increasing funding from Gulf Cooperation Council states, directed towards academic centers, student scholarships, academic chairs and fellowships, and donations to archives and museums.
“By 2008 Saudi Arabia had given UK HEIs £189.8m, £21m to Oxford, £8m to Edinburgh, £8m to Cambridge, £1m to the Oxford Middle East Center at St Antony’s College and a large amount to the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies,” Dr. Anthony Glees, Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham, who previously researched Gulf funding into Western universities, told LobeLog. Other UK universities like Durham, the London School of Economic and Political Science, and Exeter have since received sizable donations.
Meanwhile, U.S. universities have received $2.2 billion from Gulf states since the beginning of 2012, according to a Financial Times analysis. MIT, for instance, received numerous Saudi donations. Among these were $25 million in March 2018 from Saudi Aramco, for research in renewable energy and artificial intelligence. The university also received individual gifts from Saudi billionaires totaling as much as $43 million. Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Stanford, and the California Institute of Technology are other elite U.S. universities that have received Saudi financing. These investments have largely focused on Western Middle East Studies centers. Virtually every Middle East department in the West has some Gulf funding.
One mechanism for this funding is state-linked foundations. Saudi Arabia’s Alwaleed Philanthropies (formerly the Al Waleed bin Talal Foundation) has provided considerable funding and scholarships to several academic institutions. Meanwhile, the Emirates Foundation has created closer ties with universities like LSE, reportedly to “support academic collaboration and knowledge transfer between LSE and Arab universities.”
In the UK particularly, government cuts and potential losses from Brexit mean that universities are increasingly desperate for new sources of funding. As leaders like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman pursue a ‘charm offensive’ in both Britain and the United States, higher education institutions and think tanks are attractive targets for their largesse.
“Brexit has meant a 7% fall in EU student numbers and will mean a loss of 16% of the research funds that are used by UK universities. Government funding is set to decrease by £120m by the new academic year, 2019-20,” said Dr. Glees, while suggesting that universities are therefore likely to depend more on external financing.
On the surface, these Saudi and Emirati investments seemingly promote academic benefits for the West and the donor states, while forging closer ties between the West and the Gulf. “The first objective of academic funding is capacity building, i.e. the education of indigenous population in all academic disciplines,” Dr. Andreas Krieg, Assistant Professor at King’s College London, told LobeLog.
“Also, Saudi investment in the MIT to support research projects in the hydrocarbon sector supports indigenous capacity building. In this context, there is a genuine interest in independent research and education.”
As Western universities grow further dependent on Saudi and Emirati support, it allows these Gulf states to reshape their academic narratives. Andreas Krieg said that the UAE has utilized such strategies to promote its own narratives, not just in universities but also in think tanks.
“The UAE have understood how important academic centers and experts are in providing legitimacy and credibility to their grand strategic narratives. Since the 2006 Dubai Port World controversy in the United States, the academic component is a solid part of the UAE’s (dis)information network,” he said.
“Think tank funding can also buy favourable expert opinion, sometimes by directly supporting the funder’s narratives and sometimes by omitting critical data. Here, the independence of researchers is compromised. Also, because researchers are selected based on their compatibility with the funder’s narratives,” Krieg added.
However, human rights violations by the UAE and Saudi Arabia have generated greater scrutiny towards this funding. Al-Waleed bin Talal has been a controversial investor, with several calls to boycott his donations. While considered a relatively liberal voice within the Saudi royal family, there were calls for Edinburgh to refuse his donations, particularly after he donated 100 cars to Saudi pilots to reward them for their role in the bombing campaign in Yemen. Al-Waleed’s foundation had funded Edinburgh’s center for Islamic studies.
Universities from both the U.S. and UK have faced criticism over Gulf funding, particularly as awareness has grown regarding Saudi and Emirati human rights abuses and suppression of academic freedom. Both countries’ domestic policies have raised concerns about women’s and LGBT rights; the suppression of academia, free speech, and press freedom; and human rights violations against state critics.
New questions arose last year, when Emirati authorities imprisoned British PhD student Matthew Hedges, accusing him of ‘spying’ for the British government when he was merely conducting research for his thesis. Hedges was kept in solitary confinement for six months in the UAE, suffering psychological torture, and was sentenced to life in prison in November 2018 after being forced to sign a “confession” statement in Arabic—which he did not understand. Eventually, international media pressure and the UK Foreign Office helped secure his release. This incident occurred in the wake of the Saudi-sanctioned killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Though several universities, including Durham, Exeter, and Birmingham initially suspended their UAE ties during Hedges’ imprisonment, and Harvard University ended its own ties to MbS’ MiSK foundation, many universities did not reconsider their own links. Moreover, once the Emiratis released Hedges many universities restored their UAE funding streams.
Krieg added that the ongoing GCC crisis, which began two years ago when Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE cut economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar, has not impacted this funding. Qatar, in fact, plays a minimal role in financing academic institutions.
“When Qatar arrived on the scene in Washington in 2017, the UAE in particular had already seized much of the academic market leaving few options for Qatar to fund projects,” said Krieg. “Qatar’s narrative might be more conducive to the ideology and values of most academics. Qatar does not need to invest as much to legitimize its narrative.”
Glees worried that this Gulf funding could influence academic narratives, inhibiting legitimate criticism of those states which fund universities. After the Arab Spring, western universities paid closer attention to human rights violations and democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet research from academics Martin Lestra and Jonas Bergan Draege suggests that “institutions funded by Gulf countries continued to be somewhat less likely to raise these issues.”
Dr. Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said that Saudi Arabia expects support for its policies in return for its funding. It blames criticism on research funded by its regional rivals. “Western academic institutions defend their objectivity by claiming that they remain objective despite the funding,” she said. “But this will be difficult to sustain, as Saudi funding may be cut if activities at such centers are deemed hostile [to] or critical of Saudi Arabia.”