Middle East: Mutual disillusionment

EducationWorld January 2020 | International News

US universities’ ties with Middle Eastern countries are coming under increasing scrutiny, threatening to accelerate the decline of such links and leaving campuses facing a mounting administrative burden. From the US government end, the renewed focus is a side effect of the White House’s strategy for blocking China from accessing cutting-edge US research, which has seen universities receiving demands to produce records of all foreign transactions.

Beyond China, two of the countries most likely to figure in these documents are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These are already the targets of politically conservative organisations, which have expressed concerns about the monarchies’ reported links to religious extremism.

Separate analyses by the Daily Caller news site and the Clarion Project advocacy group have estimated Qatar as the leader, investing more than $1 billion (Rs.7,100 crore) over five years in US universities. Both analyses put the five-year Saudi investment in US universities at about $600 million. As for China, the Clarion Project estimates $600 million, while the Daily Caller count is closer to $400 million.

Such critics have described the payments as part of secretive influence campaigns needing greater public exposure. US universities, however, describe the money as consisting largely of payments by enrolled foreign students, payments related to the operations of branch campuses in the Gulf and donations.

Steven Bloom, director of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, the chief US higher education lobby group, says the US government is potentially burying campuses in paperwork.

In federal letters to US campuses, Bloom says the administration seems to be overlooking the $250,000 threshold set by a 1980s law requiring US universities to declare foreign revenue to the government, and has instead demanded complete accounting for all foreign payments.“It’s enormously burdensome and costly,” says Bloom.

Middle Eastern nations currently host at least a dozen branch campuses of US universities, mostly in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Much of Saudi Arabia’s expenditure, by contrast, involves the 40,000 students that it sends to college in the US. Saudi financial support to US universities also includes investments in research and in cultural projects such as the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

But Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, says efforts to publicise ties between US universities and their partners in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are more likely to aggravate anxieties at the other end. That’s because both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are growing tired of their massive investments in US higher education, finding them unable to produce the political influence and reputational gains they seek.

“At least on the Saudi side, they’re frustrated that they’ve given a lot of money to create chairs at universities and it doesn’t seem to translate into much influence,” says Brown. Qatar has turned to the Rand Corporation to improve its school systems, he says, leaving its US university partnerships to shrink in number.

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