What is Qatar’s Endgame with University Funding?

Creative Commons photo by Micha Brändli via Unsplash
Creative Commons photo by Micha Brändli via Unsplash

The mayhem at college campuses should cause us all to reevaluate Qatar’s funding of American education and consider whether this is the return on investment they aimed for. 

Jewish students have been blocked from campus, chants of “We are Hamas” have reverberated across Ivy League quads, and Qatar is helping to foot the bill. 

Qatar has long had a complicated relationship with the United States, situating itself as the host of the terror group Hamas and a key mediator in recent, hitherto immaterial, negotiations with Israel. After Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority in Gaza in 2007, Qatar—alongside Turkey—was one of two countries to back the group. In 2011, Barack Obama formally requested the country provide a home base for Hamas to ease practical constraints in negotiations.

Qatar, officially an American ally, has played a fraught inside-outside game with the United States since 1992, maintaining American forces while giving Hamas $1.8 billion. Their recent moves to influence American schools and universities raise new concerns and color the current debate over higher education in America. 

Perhaps the most obviously threatening issue comes from Qatar’s partnership with Texas A&M. Recent investigations have shown Qatar’s underreported and unregulated funding of the university, as well as their ownership of over 500 research projects at the top university, many of which are in highly sensitive fields such as nuclear science, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, biotech robotics, and weapons development. Even more concerning, the country owns 100% of the intellectual property generated at the satellite campus in Doha. 

This arrangement is alarming for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that Texas A&M has contracts related to the maintenance of American nuclear weapons through Los Alamos National Laboratory. The official strategic plan for Texas A&M Qatar (TAMUQ) explicitly says that the university will “perform research that is relevant to and needed by the State of Qatar, its government agencies, industries, and companies.” Given Qatar’s open relationship with Iran, it is entirely possible, if not probable, that the regime could infiltrate TAMUQ systems or resources and extract information to benefit their own nuclear program. 

However, while this partnership might be the most outwardly hazardous, it is only the tip of the iceberg in Qatar’s efforts to shape education and intellectual life in the United States. 

Earlier this year, a Brooklyn public school classroom hosted a map of the Middle East that had erased Israel and replaced it with “Palestine.” The image went viral and sparked important but short-lived outrage over the incident, including a rebuke from Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres. It turns out the map was linked to funding from—you guessed it—Qatar. It appeared at PS 261 in Boerum Hill as part of an “Arab Culture Arts” program financed by Qatar Foundation International (QFI), a philanthropic group supported by the country’s ruling class. From 2019-2022, the organization donated over $1 Million to the New York City Department of Education, nearly doubling its contributions in 2022—the last year for which public records are available. 

While a $1 Million dollar donation constitutes a small fraction of the NYC DOE budget, when it entails curriculum influence sufficient to literally wipe Israel off the map in the largest school system in the U.S., it ought to raise eyebrows. 

But is this just a one-off, fluke incident? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that way. Recent research from the Network Contagion Research Institute found that at least 200 American universities illegally withheld information about approximately $13 billion in Qatari contributions. 

According to the report, between 2015 and 2020, institutions that accepted financial contributions from Middle Eastern donors experienced an average increase of 300% in antisemitic incidents compared to those that did not. During this same period, institutions that accepted undisclosed funds from authoritarian donors saw an average increase of 250% in antisemitic incidents relative to those that did not. Overall, campuses that accept undisclosed donations are approximately 85% more likely to see campaigns “targeting academic scholars for sanction, including campaigns to investigate, censor, demote, suspend, or terminate.”

While there may be compelling realpolitik reasons to avoid icing U.S. relations with Qatar or officially designating them as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, there is no good reason to continue allowing them to infiltrate our education systems.

While funding from Qatar and other foreign entities cannot account for all of the problems in higher education, it certainly does not help the situation. When one makes an investment, charitable or otherwise, she expects to see a certain return. No one wants to dump money into an abyss with no clear objective. Given Qatar’s close ties to Iran and Hamas, turning the American youth against Israel and the Jewish people could help them undermine the historic alliance between America and Israel, endangering the security of Israel and opening doors for Iran’s expansionism. The available data on the correlation between adversarial funding and antisemitism, as well as the chaos and anarchy on college campuses, raises the real question: Is this the return Qatar hoped for?

About the Author
Liza Ashley is the Director of the Charles Malik Institute at the Philos Project. She regularly writes and speaks on topics related to religion, culture, and foreign policy.
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