Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, pleaded guilty last week to illegal lobbying on behalf of Qatar, the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate. Top media outlets then reported that the FBI seized documents from retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who commanded NATO troops in Afghanistan. Allen denies any wrongdoing.
Such allegations are remarkable all on their own, yet the significance of this story only becomes apparent if one sets it against the backdrop of the billions of dollars that Qatar’s autocratic government has spent to buy influence in Washington. Nor is this the first time that the recipients of Doha’s largesse apparently ignored federal laws requiring the disclosure of their financial relationships.
Arguably, Doha’s investments are paying off; earlier this year, the White House asked Congress to officially designate Qatar as a major non-NATO ally, a status that serves as both a political seal of approval and a key to securing additional training and weapons from the Pentagon. It’s an unusual honor for a country that once sheltered the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and now harbors the leaders of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. Doha also has a long record of turning a blind eye to terror financing while promoting its anti-Western and antisemitic brand of Islam.
And yet, inside the Beltway, taking Qatari money amounts to business as usual. In 2018, when the Washington Capitals were chasing the Stanley Cup, Doha picked up the $100,000 tab for keeping the Metro open for an extra hour, so fans could get home after Game 4 of the conference finals. The emirate has also donated tens of millions dollars to leading Washington, D.C, think tanks.
The leading recipients of Qatari largesse are a small circle of top-flight universities, who acknowledged much of the funding they received only under pressure from the Department of Education. For decades, federal law has required universities to disclose when they receive $250,000 or more from a foreign source in a single calendar year. Amid signs of abysmal compliance, DOE launched a series of investigations that turned up $6.5 billion of unreported foreign funding.
Among the worst offenders was Cornell, which failed to disclose $1.2 billion of foreign money, including $760 million Doha paid to finance the establishment of a Cornell satellite campus in Qatar’s Education City. Given how many colleges seem to know the exact amount every alum has donated since he or she received his diploma, Cornell’s oversight does not exactly seem like an honest mistake.
Besides Cornell, five other schools have campuses in Education City and receive the lion’s share of Qatari money: Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Texas A&M, and Virginia Commonwealth. Following revisions spurred by DOE investigations, these six reported total Qatari funding of $4.8 billion since 2005— a smattering of other schools received another $150 million from Doha.
While no one knows much foreign funding remains unreported, Qatar is the undisputed leader among disclosed beneficiaries, with the U.K. coming in second with $3.6 billion. Canada is third, and China and Saudi Arabia round out the top five.
Qatar seems less than eager to have the details of its donations become public knowledge. In 2016, in response to a public records request, the state attorney general ordered Texas A&M to release the contract for operating its Doha campus in exchange for $76.2 million per year. The attorney general ruled against the Qatar Foundation that “petitioned Texas authorities to keep the document secret.”
Despite Doha’s record of sheltering and funding violent extremists, its partners profess total comfort with the relationship. In 2019, a Georgetown spokeswoman said the university “carefully reviews all gifts to ensure they are in alignment with our values.”
The sermons delivered at the Education City Mosque provide some insight into the Qatar Foundation’s values. In a 2016 sermon, preacher Mudassir Ahmed declared, “Kill the infidels. … Count them in number and do not spare one.” Qatar Foundation promoted Ahmed’s sermon, using its own logo and that of Qatar’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs. Last year, the mosque’s imam, Haytham al-Dokhin, tweeted a video in which he chanted, “Oh Lord, liberate Al-Aqsa from the usurper Jews.” A few days later, he added: “Jews are the staunchest enemies of Muslims,” concluding, “Dear Lord, please take on the nefarious Jews and show us your miraculous power.”
These are not isolated examples, but rather illustrations of how Qatar Foundation and the government in Doha cultivate bigotry throughout the emirate. Yet the universities of Education City insist they enjoy an optimal climate for academic inquiry. In a book published last month, Christine Schiwietz, an associate dean at the Georgetown campus in Doha, “With no ministry-mandated curricula… [American] universities [in Doha] have freedom that other international universities lack.” Perhaps the faculty can choose what to teach, but student events run into censorship: Georgetown Qatar canceled a proposed discussion about whether to portray God as a woman. The incident helped earn the school a place on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s annual list of “worst colleges for free speech.”
Ambassador Olsen and Gen. Allen are the ones now entangled with the law, but the regime in Doha is the one that paid to play in Washington. Even when Qatari largesse is entirely above board, it serves to obscure Doha’s internal repression and ties to extremists. It is time for American institutions to start tearing up the checks that Doha is so eager to write.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at FDD, which accepts no donations from foreign governments. Follow them on Twitter @hahussain and @adesnik.