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Gulf money undermining independence of West’s universities

Harvard Law School [File photo]
Harvard Law School [File photo]

The link between western universities and Gulf countries has come under sharp scrutiny following the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the life sentence passed by the UAE on a British academic last month. The two incidents have triggered a global outcry that has seen a number of universities parting with Gulf donors and others reassessing their relations with the monarchies.

With billions of pounds donated by authoritarian regimes to academic institutions that traditionally defend human rights, freedom of expression and democracy, questions are being raised over whether Gulf money has undermined the ability of universities in the UK, US as well as Australia to uphold these values.

Six Gulf states alone have provided $2.2 billion to US universities since the beginning of 2012, according to a Financial Times analysis. The total represents just under a quarter of all foreign gifts and contracts over that period. There is said to be less transparency over foreign funding to UK institutions. But Gulf entities, according to the FT have donated tens of millions of pounds to the country’s leading institutions, primarily to their Middle East centres. Research by two academics has found that at least $89 million was paid to UK institutions between 1997 and 2007.

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Harvard University is one of the first to turn its back on Gulf money since the killing of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The American institution, the FT reported, has chosen not to renew a five-year fellowship programme with the MiSK Foundation, a charity that belongs to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. “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 Centre for Middle Eastern Studies. “The latest incident is going to keep us all on our toes.”

A number of academics cited in the FT report described the compromising situation universities have put themselves in as a result of their ties to the Gulf. “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 centres,” said 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.”

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One British academic mentioned in the report said that when he published an article on a Gulf state, a senior member of his UK university emailed him reminding him the subject was “a donor and long-time 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 said. “Would you accept a grant from a Kremlin official and name a building after him? Obviously not.”

Research carried out by two British academics, 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. 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”.

Explaining why western academic institutions have become easy prey to the Gulf Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East said: “The funding climate has changed so drastically over the past ten to 15 years that they are almost forced to raise money elsewhere. And the Gulf has prioritised through their soft power two things — education and sport.”

The FT report noted that 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 politicised.

“There is a competition for influence globally between both sides of that dispute and that is fought out across London, Washington and across the world, and that makes it difficult for anyone in academia or anyone else to steer a straight path,” said Professor Toby Dodge of LSE. “What I would do is not pick sides.”

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