Beware the Gulf stream?

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Friday 29 January 2016 12:28 UTC
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Cash-strapped UK universities and think tanks have benefited from wealthy petrodollar sponsors. But what does this mean for independent, academic research?

Earlier this month, Durham University signed an agreement with Qatar University (QU) to award students a dual PhD in Gulf studies. Judging by the scathing assessment of a senior American academic who travelled to Qatar early last year to investigate his university’s branch in Doha, the tie-up may not advance “quality education and research” to quite the degree that Qatar thinks it will.

Stephen F Eisenman, a professor from the US’s reputed Northwestern University, went to Doha last year to conduct his investigation. Northwestern is one of six top American universities, along with University College London (UCL) and French business school HEC Paris, that have campuses in Qatar.

Last month, his findings were published by the Washington Post - and they made for devastating reading. Eisenman concluded that Northwestern’s Qatar branch was “untenable” and that it enjoyed “limited academic freedom”.

“The ethics of establishing a campus in an authoritarian country are murky, especially when it inhibits free expression, and counts among its allies several oppressive regimes or groups," he wrote.

Eisenman's findings highlight an obvious conflict of interest and the complications around western academia’s collaboration with Gulf countries – a relationship that has long been dogged by questions of academic freedom.

Over the last decade, oil-rich Arab Gulf nations have used their vast wealth to buy influence in the West. Soft power has been projected through Qatar’s bid to stage the 2022 World Cup to acquisitions of top-flight football teams, iconic buildings and stakes in western, blue chip corporations.     

A more subtle use of soft power emerges in the relationship between the Gulf and academia in the West. Gulf states have bankrolled Middle East departments of British universities over the last few years to the tune of tens of millions of pounds through large donations and endowed professorships.

Prominent British think tanks, too, have flocked to the region to set up offices. They rely on commissioned research from their Arab backers, and host big events and conferences that are often paid for by Gulf sponsors.

Over the last decade, the relationships between these organisations have blossomed. The result is that the Gulf now has a staggering reach into British academia and think tanks.

But at what price?  

Uneasy relationship

Successive government cuts in the UK to higher education has forced universities and think tanks in the UK to look to new sources of funding that have opened up in parts of the world such as the Gulf, which have poor human rights records and don’t share western values like free speech. This has often created an uneasy relationship between these cash-strapped academic institutions and their wealthy, petrodollar sponsors. 

Middle East Eye spoke to two academics specialising in the Gulf who have encountered censorship issues. Both asked not to be named.

“There are definitely concerns about the way we produce certain things and whether it’s going to upset people,” said one. Asked whether it was healthy to be paid by a country about which one should be free to produce independent academic research, this person replied: “I think it compromises the integrity of the research.”

Gulf specialists say they have encountered problems that go beyond censorship as a result of their research.

A researcher who worked for a well-known think tank in the Gulf told MEE he had experienced delays to a transfer visa to another job, amid speculation a critical paper of his on Qatar’s regional diplomacy was to blame.

Sense and sensitivity

It is clear that prominent UK think tanks have tailored their output due to similar pressure from Gulf states.

Take for example the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a prestigious London-based think tank, specialising in defence and security issues. It considers itself more independent than universities and other think tanks in the Gulf in that it doesn’t receive sponsorship directly from Middle East governments, though it is commissioned to produce policy research. Academic freedom is never compromised, it says

RUSI, which has an office in Qatar, avoided indepth coverage of Islamist dissidents in the United Arab Emirates so as not to upset the authorities in Abu Dhabi, one person familiar with the matter told MEE.

A commentary piece in November 2012 published on the RUSI website mentioned the suppression of Islamists in the UAE as part of a wider piece on Britain’s then strained relations with Saudi and the UAE. 

RUSI staff said that UAE authorities are usually more sensitive than other Gulf governments, and had expressed their displeasure with statements made to the media by the think tank which were deemed to be politically insensitive. 

“This is the sort of area where self-censorship comes in because the Gulf has become much more politicised in the last four years and a place that makes subjects like this very sensitive,” David Roberts, a former director of RUSI Qatar told MEE.

“The RUSI line on this [Islamist dissidents] would have been we don’t write on every topic, which is true, but we wouldn’t have provided open comment.”

In 2014, a Wikileaks cable showed how Saud Al Faisal, Saudi’s Foreign Minister, had written to the then Qatari Prime Minister, Shiekh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, complaining about an article by Roberts which apparently criticised Saudi Arabia. Al Faisal called for Roberts to be thrown out of Qatar.

Roberts admitted there is self-censorship working for think tanks in the Gulf but said he wrote “critically on all aspects of their politics, security, and foreign policy without anyone ever even intimating that I should avoid a certain topic”.

However, another academic who used to work for a think tank in Qatar said: “I never came across problems writing about other Gulf states, but had the Arab Spring come to Qatar, I imagine there would have been censorship.”

Stacked deck

Events organised by think tanks in Gulf countries have also created problems.

Following Bahrain’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters during the Arab Spring, RUSI organised three events in early 2012 with Derasat, a research centre strongly aligned to the Bahraini government.

Debate at the first two events – roundtable discussions in Manama and London - steered away from sensitive domestic issues such as political reform, rather they broadly focused on British-Bahraini relations.

The second event in London was mired in controversy, as RUSI was forced to defend itself for inviting a pro-government MP to speak. Jamal Fakhro had previously justified the jailing of medics who helped injured protesters during Bahrain’s uprising the year before.

The third event, a conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, again avoided domestic politics, and instead focused on more anodyne topics such as regional security. Two critics of Bahrain, Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a former co-director of the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics, were denied a visa to attend the event.

Roberts wrote on his blog at the time: “It appears that the Bahrainis have stacked the deck and have not issued visas to people that they agreed could attend the events. This is a monumentally silly thing to do.”

A spokesman for RUSI said: “We have worked with all the governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council, including the ones you mention. At no point do we feel that our independence or our academic freedom was compromised. Whether it is with governments here in the UK or around the world, we feel we can help governments in the policymaking process by acting as a critical friend.”

A question of funding

Think tank The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has organised the Manama Dialogue, a huge security conference, for the last few years in Bahrain, funded largely by the Gulf state’s government. At the 2015 event a few months ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi and Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond both gave keynote speeches.

IISS has an office in Bahrain and regularly publishes research on the Middle East. Its focus, though, is not on issues in the Gulf, certainly not in Bahrain, but rather regional politics in Syria, Libya and on safer topics like security and global terrorism. The Bahraini army donates up to $142,415 a year to the think tank.

Christopher Davidson, a reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, said: “It is unhealthy to be paid for by an actor that you’re supposed to be writing about. How can I trust an IISS report when its bread and butter is paid by the Bahraini government?”

IISS said: “In all dealings with potential funders, we insist clearly and consistently that we will not accept any funding that may impinge on our intellectual and political independence. This is never a matter for negotiation. The IISS alone determines the agenda of its conferences, the speakers at its events, the shape of its research work, the direction of its analysis and the nature of its conclusions.

It added: “It is a core policy of the IISS continually to broaden and deepen its funding streams. This is consistent with the Institute’s desire to rigorously maintain its independence, provide rigorous analysis from an international perspective and to offer a valued meeting point for para-diplomatic activity and defence diplomacy.”

Gulf backers

Think tanks are not the only academic institutions that receive funding from Arab Gulf states. All six Gulf monarchies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait – have given substantial donations to western universities over the past few years. 

“Almost every centre of Middle East studies in the UK is linked somehow to a Gulf backer,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, formerly of the LSE, now a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute in the US.

“It’s created dilemmas, especially over the last few years as the threshold for self-tolerance of any dissenting view has got lower,” he said.

Like other academics with an interest in the region, Coates Ulrichsen said that, without Gulf money, universities would struggle to fund Middle East studies with UK government grants shrinking.

At last year’s Gulf Research Meeting (GRM) at Cambridge University, an annual event for academics specialising in the region, there were reports that criticism of Gulf states during political panels was toned down compared to previous years because of general sensitivities post-Arab Spring, according to one attendee. Sponsors of the event listed on its website are almost entirely from the Gulf and include Qatar University, the Saudi Binladen Group and KAB Holding, another Saudi conglomerate.

The Gulf Research Meeting is organised by the Cambridge branch of the Gulf Research Centre (GRC), a think tank formerly based in Dubai, now in Geneva, which was founded in 2000 by a Saudi businessman to counter “negative and inaccurate” impressions of the region by media, according to its website. It’s not known how much funding the centre gets from the Gulf. MEE had not received a response to emailed questions from the GRC at the time of this article's publication.

As Davidson at Durham points out in his 2012 book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of Gulf Monarchies, the flow of money to the Middle East departments of British universities has resulted in little critical coverage of Gulf countries.

“In addition to promoting self-censorship, the donations also tend to encourage the steering of academic debate away from the Gulf monarchies themselves – and especially studies on their domestic politics or societies – by instead promoting research on ‘safer topics’ in the broader region or on Arabic language or Islamic Studies," he wrote.

Davidson goes on: “Its more subtle objective is to sway academic opinion in the West, or at the very least foster a ‘chilling atmosphere’ of apologetic behaviour or avoidance when it comes to intellectual discussion of the Gulf monarchies.”

Despite Gulf funding to the tune of tens of millions of pounds flooding Britain’s universities, there remain very few Gulf experts in the country, and fewer who are critical of the region. And compared to coverage of the Middle East Levant region, Iraq and North Africa, rigorous critiques on sensitive subjects in the Gulf such as political reform, human rights and suppression of dissent are in short supply.

Some academics do write freely on Gulf issues. Those who don’t tend to be attached to endowed university professorships, which are often named after the Gulf country’s ruling family or the organisation that has supplied the multi-million pound grant.

In defence, some of the academics that hold the chairs of these endowments don’t count the Gulf as their specialist subjects. However, it is also unclear if they’ve been given these positions because their work conveniently avoids controversial issues. 

Sponsorship pitfalls

The revelation that Saif Al Islam, Muammar Gaddafi’s son and a former phD student at the London School of Economics, had given a £1.5m gift to the institution highlighted the perils of Middle East sponsorship of universities. A report by former Lord Chief Justice Woolf in 2011 said that mistakes and errors of judgement over the affair had damaged the LSE's reputation. Yet the LSE continues to receive significant funding from the UAE and Kuwait.

As of the middle of 2014 the Abu Dhabi-funded Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy had given £6.073m to the LSE. The total amount pledged by the Emirates Foundation is over £9m. Since 2007, the government-backed Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences has been funding a £5.8m, 10-year research programme at the LSE.

The complications of Gulf funding were laid bare in early 2013 when the LSE was forced to cancel a conference on the Arab Spring in Sharjah in the UAE, after one of its then Middle East specialists, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, was refused entry to the country because of his criticism of Bahrain, a close ally of the UAE.

Weeks later, LSE cancelled at the last minute a major Gulf conference in London hosted by the Kuwait Foundation after the Kuwaitis pulled out.

Sharjah’s ruler Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi is major benefactor, firstly to Exeter University – home to Britain’s only centre for Gulf studies – where it funds two endowed professorships, and to Durham University. Durham too was dogged by controversy after it accepted a £2.5m donation in 2011 from a former Kuwaiti prime minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Sabah whose government was accused of corruption.

Not to be outdone, the state-funded Qatar Foundation gave Oxford University £2.4m in 2008 to have a professorship named after the former Emir, called His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor in Contemporary Islamic Studies.

Oman’s ruler Qaboos Bin Said Al Said has funded two endowments at Cambridge University in the past 10 years, which are both named after him. The first, set up in 2005, came with a gift of £2.8m. In 2008 Saudi Arabia’s Al-Waleed bin Talal Al Saud, one of the world’s richest men, gave £8m to the Islamic studies department at Cambridge, which is named after him, and donated a large sum to the Islamic studies centre at Edinburgh University.  

In spite of the huge funding the LSE receives, its research has criticised the Gulf states and the UAE.  A report on the Muslim Brotherhood late last year and recent papers on migrant labourers in Qatar stand out. Madawi Al Rasheed, Visiting Professor to the LSE Middle East Centre is renowned for her criticism of Saudi Arabia.

The LSE and the universities of Exeter, Oxford and Cambridge all said that their staff were free to write what they like and Gulf funding did not compromise academic freedom. Durham University treated MEE's questions as a Freedom Of Information request, which was still pending when this article was published.  

Gulf academics stressed that without Gulf money universities would struggle to fund Middle East studies with government grants shrinking.

One LSE academic with knowledge of its Middle East centre said: “There are no other obvious funds for Gulf studies. Gulf studies have certainly grown due to funding and this funding has very likely had some impact on how critical some scholars are – but there is critical scholarship and one has to work with the resources that are available.”

Alex Delmar-Morgan is a freelance journalist in London and has written for a range of national titles including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, and The Independent. He is the former Qatar and Bahrain correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones.

Photo: Opening of the 11th Manama Dialogue Regional Security Summit organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in the Bahraini capital, Manama, on 30 October 2015 (AFP)