The Qatari government’s American partners have pursued a range of damage control tactics since Oct. 7, when Hamas, a Qatar-sponsored terrorist group whose senior political leadership is based in the Gulf emirate, murdered over 1,200 people, killing over 30 U.S. citizens and kidnapping a dozen more. Qatari money has spread far across American life, but leading institutions do not often brag about partnering with governments that openly facilitate the work of a genocidally minded terrorist organization that records videos of its atrocities. Such relationships risk becoming a source of public shame, and raise the specter of long-term damage to an organization’s reputation and brand. Then again, what the public doesn’t know can’t hurt it.
Higher education, one of the last remaining industries in which the U.S. is still the unquestioned global leader, has proven particularly expert in shielding its favorite deep-pocketed investor from public scrutiny. In a new series of reports, a research consortium organized by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy found that some $2.7 billion in Qatari funding made it to American colleges and universities between 2014 and 2019 without public acknowledgement from the institutions themselves. The universities only divulged these contributions, which also included some $1.2 billion from China and $1.06 billion from Saudi Arabia, through a Department of Education online portal set up in 2019 to track previously unreported foreign funding.
Universities in the United States that receive funding from the federal government are legally obligated to disclose direct support or contracts they receive from foreign sources if they are valued at $250,000 or more over the course of a calendar year. But there are ways for these states to fund activities at American universities without the money actually reaching the U.S. or being directly traceable to a government source. The Qatar Foundation, the Qatar National Research Fund, the Qatar Fund for Development, and the Qatar Investment Authority are all classified as nongovernment entities under Qatari law, even if their money comes entirely from the crown. While Qatar has made large and highly publicized gifts to American institutions, including $760 million to Georgetown, and $1.8 billion to Cornell, Qatari state-financed entities often fund individual scholars or programs in the United States without official disclosure, thus avoiding public scrutiny.
An upcoming report, which ISGAP shared with Tablet, used the example of Yale University to show the diverse paths through which Qatar supports the work of U.S. universities. As the study notes, the New Haven-based institution disclosed only $284,668 in funding from Qatar between 2010 and 2022.
ISGAP’s researchers found that this amount reflected only a small fraction of the money and services the university and its scholars had in fact received from the Qatari government over that period.
The most common channel for hard-to-track Qatari support for Yale came from individual research grants originating from the Qatar National Research Fund, which describes itself as a “member” of the Qatar Foundation. In a few cases, an individual grant’s value appeared in publicly available sources. Per the curriculum vitae of the research partner whose institution, Texas A&M University, helped obtain the grant, Yale engineering professor Abbas Firoozabadi and his three collaborators received a total of $1,029,978 from QNRF for a “Theoretical and experimental study of asphaltene deposition during CO2 injection in Qatar’s oil reservoirs” in 2010. In 2012, University of Massachusetts political scientist David Mednicoff was awarded a grant of $1,016,808 from QNRF for a project titled “The Rule of Law in Qatar: Comparative Insights and Policy Strategies.” In November of 2011, he had delivered a presentation on a theme similar to his future QNRF-funded research to Yale’s Council on Middle East Studies Colloquium.
When reached by email, Mednicoff explained that Qatar has a sophisticated—and, by regional and even global standards, remarkably open—system for supporting academic research conducted in the emirate. QNRF-funded projects “must be managed by researchers in Qatar, and on subjects directly connected to Qatar,” Mednicoff recalled. “I had complete freedom to design and run my research as I saw fit, and was actually surprised that no one in the Qatari government seemed concerned about open-ended research on law and politics.” Meanwhile QNRF’s grant process “was exactly like any other one I have been through,” Mednicoff wrote, “namely, highly bureaucratic … and judged through blind peer reviews from expert scholars.” Money from a QNRF grant could only make it to the U.S. in a highly regulated system in which a scholar and their team “worked as subcontractors for a grant run by someone based at a Qatari research institution.”
The ISGAP report found 11 Yale-linked QNRF grants, and lists the grant number that the fund attached to each project. QNRF, the Qatar Foundation, and other Qatari funders do not have a searchable online grant database—ISGAP had to cull their information from CVs, research journals, and other disaggregated public sources that had listed the applicable QNRF grant number. The website of the Qatar Research, Development and Innovation Council, of which QNRF is apparently a member, does have a portal for information about affiliated projects, but the database does not disclose the value of any individual grant. The extent of QNRF funding therefore can’t be known unless a scholar or their institution chooses to publicly announce the amount themselves. Of the four grants whose amount had been voluntarily disclosed by their recipient, three were worth over $1 million, while the last was for $413,000. Yale professors and affiliates received grants of unknown value from QNRF for research they conducted in the country on topics like Christian support for anti-regime uprisings in Egypt and Syria, various genetic disorders, and the use of oil byproducts as a green energy input.
Joint programming offers another potential channel of support. As ISGAP reported, in 2013 Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering announced “a research collaboration in Qatar made possible by QAFCO [the Qatar Fertilizer Company], who sponsored the first Green Chemistry and Engineering Chair at TAMQ [Texas A&M University’s Doha campus].” The “collaboration” would temporarily bring Yale chemistry and environmental studies professor Paul Anastas to TAMQ, to “initiate research projects with funding from the Qatar National Research Fund and local Qatar industry.” In addition to leading Yale’s Center For Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, Anastas served as a senior Environmental Protection Agency official during Barack Obama’s first term. The ISGAP report notes that several Yale scholars and administrators, including a longtime university vice president, had some level of affiliation with the World Innovation Summit for Education, which is a project of the Qatar Foundation.
In yet another point of contact between the Yale bureaucracy and a Qatari government entity, Yale University Press produced a 2019 book as part of the Biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art that, according to the press’s website, was “distributed for the Qatar Foundation.” When contacted for comment, a representative for Yale University Press replied, “The Press has an agreement with Virginia Commonwealth University,” which has an arts campus in Doha, “with respect to the lecture series ‘The Hamad Bin Khalifa Symposia and Publications on Islamic Art and Culture’—a series we understand is sponsored by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development. The Press does not have any agreements with the Qatar Foundation, nor does it receive funding from them. A 2013 book on Islamic art was “published in association with the Qatar Foundation.”
The geopolitical implications of a university press advancing a small aspect of the cultural agenda of a nondemocratic government, in one case in connection with an event named after that country’s former emir, are inevitably minor. But it is the relative insignificance of many of the partnerships detailed in the ISGAP report that hints at Qatar’s broader strategy, which is to be treated as a mainstream and generally positive actor within U.S. academia.
Only a small handful of scholars and academic administrators are in a position to know that Qatar distributes million-dollar grants, or collaborates on academic research projects and publications. But such assistance to U.S. universities ensures that there will be people ensconced in the American elite’s major credentialing institutions who will look to Qatar as an enlightened, perhaps even liberal-minded source of financial support and professional encouragement. Grantees and donors alike can be sure that no one on Yale’s campus will be marching against Qatar, regardless of what the emirate’s government or its clients do.
In large and small amounts, and through methods calculated to both attract and avoid public attention, Qatar accurately identified the centers of power in America and made sure they’d have their own piece of them, using official and semi-official largesse to purchase the support of America’s academic, media, and entertainment leaders. Qatar has become a factor in both the United States and in world affairs through spending its money wisely and patiently, over long periods of time and in a way that enlists everyone from college administrators to magazine editors to NBA owners. Qatar’s U.S. strategy is an extension of its successful policies in the Middle East, where a long-term financial and political commitment to Hamas has thrust Doha into the center of global diplomacy, with the effect of legitimizing both the Gulf emirate and its Islamist client in Gaza.
Foreign Policy magazine, for example, which aims to provide expert reporting and opinion on the Middle East and surrounding policy debates, is the official podcasting partner of the Doha Forum and the only media organization whose logo appears on the front page of the website for the Doha Debates. Both events are a project of the state-funded Qatar Foundation.
“We’re quite proud of these shows,” Andrew Sollinger, Foreign Policy’s publisher and CEO, told Tablet on Oct. 16 by email, when asked about his partnership with Qatar on the magazine’s podcasts. “Two of them, The Negotiators and The Long Game, have either won or were short-listed for big awards and had episodes featured on dozens of public radio stations.” When asked if Foreign Policy would continue the partnership, or consider partnering with Qatari state-linked entities in the future, Sollinger simply replied, “yes.”
Similarly, the International Crisis Group considers Qatar to be no better or worse than the rest of its numerous other state or multilateral funders, even with the obvious conflicts of interest involved in an institute being financed by a participant in conflicts that it studies. “Qatar’s contribution accounts for less than 5% of our total annual unrestricted funding from all income sources, a similar level of funding to that which we receive from the EU and from some individual European governments,” ICG advocacy chief Elissa Jobson wrote to Tablet on Oct. 17. “We have strong safeguards in place to protect our independence and do not accept any support with strings attached that would infringe that independence.”
Other American recipients of Qatari money are cagier. In June, The Washington Post reported that the Qatar Investment Authority was purchasing 5% of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, owner of the NBA, NHL, and WNBA franchises in the nation’s capital, as well as two arenas and various other real estate, at a $4 billion valuation. The estimated $200 million that the Leonsis-owned Monumental was set to receive from Doha is hardly a record windfall—former Vice President Al Gore got a half-billion dollars from Qatari investors when he sold his struggling cable news network, Current TV, to Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-owned satellite network, in 2013. But this latest purchase still marks the first direct sovereign wealth fund investment in any of the major American sports leagues, with the Qataris purchasing a share in teams that play just blocks away from the headquarters of the U.S. federal government, in the heart of the American defense and lobbying industry.
In the weeks after Oct. 7, it was oddly difficult to get anyone from the NBA, NHL, or Monumental itself to confirm that the deal had closed—the leagues and Monumental either had nagging doubts about their controversial new business partners, or else they didn’t want to provide an opening for outside actors who might attempt to stop the sale. Representatives of the NBA and Monumental refused to discuss the status of the deal on-record, with NBA spokesman Mike Bass sending Tablet a terse, one-line statement after a phone conservation on background on Oct. 22: “We continue to follow the directives and guidance of the U.S. government as it relates to Qatar.” The deal had “closed,” Monumental spokeswoman Anu Rangappa wrote by email—but as proof she cited a Monumental press release saying only that the deal had been announced. When I asked on-record whether the NBA and NHL had finished their respective due diligence on the purchase, Rangappa wrote, “I’d direct you to the leagues for comment on their actions,” an odd next step to suggest if the leagues had in fact completed due diligence on the purchase, which would have been an obvious condition for the deal closing. I received no reply after asking her by email if QIA currently owns 5% of Monumental. When I asked by phone on Oct. 30, she paused for a moment, said she was in a meeting, added that she would call back later, and hung up. I never heard from her again.
Others have encountered a similar ambiguity. “As we understand it, the NHL is currently doing due diligence on the proposed purchase of 5% of the Washington Capitals by the Qatar Investment Authority,” the parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who Hamas is currently holding hostage in the Gaza Strip, wrote to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Oct. 17, adding, “We believe that buying into the NHL, and into Washington, DC in particular, is a top priority for the State of Qatar. Thus pressure from the NHL on Qatar might be uniquely important.”
On Nov. 14, Rep. Jack Bergman, a Michigan Republican and retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, sent letters to Bettman, Leonsis, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver voicing his opposition to the deal. In each letter, he asked for the exact date that the NBA and NHL recognized QIA as a minority owner of one of the leagues’ teams, a sign the congressman himself isn’t sure of the deal’s status. He asked Leonsis for “the name of QIA’s wholly owned subsidiary that reached agreement with MSE for a $200 million investment,” as well as the date that this subsidiary transferred the reported $200 million to Leonsis. Bergman also noted a Washington Post report that Monumental was seeking $600 million in taxpayer assistance for a projected $800 million in renovations at Capital One Arena, making QIA a possible source of easy liquidity for the Capitals and Wizards owner, who is apparently dependent on public funding for his flagship project. If Qatar’s past success in the large-scale purchase of American institutions and the people who run them is a fair guide to the fate of Bergman’s inquiry, chances are that answers won’t be forthcoming from much of anyone. After all, the checks might already have been cashed.
An earlier version of this article misstated the year David Mednicoff received the grant from the Qatar National Research Fund. The grant was awarded in 2012, not 2011.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.