by Matteo Mozzi
All six Gulf monarchies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait – have given substantial donations to western universities over the past decade. As a matter of fact, the trend of the donations is far beyond a handful since the universities involved are among the top academies in the world, the money involved is hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even tough some money may be given to business schools or science departments, the clear majority goes to create large departments and academic centres for Middle East, Islamic, or Arabic Studies. One obvious criticism is the scale of the operation, because fundamentalist Muslim states are actually exercising a strong influence over the way in which Islam and Middle East Studies are taught in Western universities. Even rich universities such as Harvard and Oxford has experienced financial problems due to the difficulty to obtain State Funds, which forced the academics to struggle to seek money for their projects, their jobs or their departments. Universities have responded in several ways: the most relevant response for a small number of universities has been to open satellite campuses in foreign countries, several in the Gulf. According to the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education, of the 200 branch campuses opened by universities around the world, 37 are in the UAE and 10 are in Qatar. These satellite campuses have two purposes: for countries that need to expand their higher education rapidly, they allow them to build capacity. For the university – if they can make them work – they allow them to tap potentially lucrative markets.
Academics say the stronger ties are helping to raise educational standards within the Gulf, especially in areas such as science and engineering, where attainment lags behind other regions. But some observers warn that international expansion might damage the reputation of these institutions, as western universities engage in self-censorship because of an increasingly repressive atmosphere. “Almost every centre of Middle East studies in the UK is linked somehow to a Gulf backer,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an associate fellow at Chatham House in the UK, “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. Moreover, without Gulf money, universities would struggle to fund Middle East studies as UK government grants shrinking.
Despite the Gulf funding to the rithm of tens of millions of pounds flooding Britain’s universities every year, there remain very few Gulf experts in the country, and fewer who are critical of the region. Compared to the 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, is 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 and 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.
“Britain’s best universities taking money from the world’s worst governments is an established trend“, says Robin Simcox, author of a 2009 report that looked into the links between British universities and governments with a poor record of human rights. Since 1986, the University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies have accepted a combined total of more than £105m in donations from sources such as the Saudi royal family and even the Bin Laden dynasty. In 1997, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies received £20m from the now-deceased King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, meanwhile, offers a studentship that is fully funded by the Iranian regime. Oxford’s £75m Islamic Studies Centre was supported by 12 Muslim states, while at Cambridge the funds come from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran.
Scholarships and degree programs are the favourite and easiest weapons of the Islamist regimes to influence the Western academies and their freedoms. For example, the Saïd Business School, at Oxford university, was set up by Wafic Said, a Syrian-Saudi businessman, with a £23m initial donation. Eight of the best universities have accepted more than 233.5 million-pound sterling from Saudi and Muslim sources since 1995 which amounts to the largest source of external funding to UK universities. While the principal donor’s intentions seem honourable, a precedent appears to have been set where wealthy donors can influence the running of an independent academic institution. Even though, there are some positives: the money can allow scholars to lecture or carry out meaningful research, to teach languages such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish (although not, of course, Hebrew), and to hold conferences open to a wide array of colleagues. Durham University is the seat of Islamic finance teaching in the United Kingdom, where students have been attending to learn the principles of Islamic finance for more than a quarter of a century and now other UK universities want to emulate the worldwide reputation for Sharia finance that Durham has achieved; the UK government wants to make London one of the centres for Sharia-compliant finance of the world. Fifty-nine schools across Britain are teaching Islamic finance today, whereas they used to be fewer than ten just a decade ago, according to the University of East London.
But the clearest evidence that Gulf backers cannot be entrusted with the support of Western university studies of Islam and the Middle East is dated 1981 when the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education paid for a lectureship at Britain’s Newcastle University, to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies. The appointee, a non-Muslim British teacher with a solid research record, embarked on a range of topics designed to give students a wide background in Islamic history. Five years later, funding for his post was abruptly cut because he included among his courses lectures on Sufism and Shi’ism – vital subjects for any study of Islam, yet, to the Wahhabis, both are anathemas. This was bad enough but the Saudis went further, by appointing a Saudi teacher with no qualifications in Islamic Studies (his PhD was in English Literature). The department and the university, eager to receive more money, allowed this amateur to teach and examine their students for several years. A dismissal and an appointment based solely upon religious doctrine, but it had its effect because now other academics in the field, receiving or hoping to receive Saudi funding, know there are topics, however important within the subject, that anyone who wants to keep his job must steer clear of.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the umbrella body Universities UK, insists that all academic programmes are subjected to rigorous and independent quality check procedures, which ensure openness and high standards. “These are important areas of the world for the UK to engage with and understand,” she adds. Even Professor Denis Hayes, the founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, said “The British government operates much more effectively to influence academic life,” he argues. “An argument can well be made that a variety of funding sources will increase the independence and autonomy of academics in the UK”. Exeter University’s Tim Niblock, professor of Middle East politics, says that in a 40-year career he “can’t remember a single case where a Gulf donor made any attempt to influence us politically, ever“. A spokeswoman for Oxford University insisted donors have “no influence over how academics carry out their research, what conclusions they reach, the content or topics of talks they give, or how the university sets its course content and teaching requirements“. Moreover, Peter Agar, Cambridge University’s development director, says nominees must be approved by the university: “Donor representatives will always be in a minority, but may well themselves be academics who can bring an informed external perspective, adding to the expertise of the internal academic members.” The arrangements protect the university’s academic integrity while enabling a particular academic area to benefit from the input of donor representatives chosen for their interest and expertise in a particular centre’s work, he insists. In the end, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Whether universities should accept particular donations is a matter for individual institutions to decide upon. Of course, they will take into account the relevant political and ethical implications when they make their decisions.” She added: “The success of UK higher education will depend on these international links and collaborations.”
In front cover: the Oxford centre for Islamic Studies