Qatar Waging Stealth Influence Operations Across U.S. Academic System, Documents Show

Group urges Trump admin to investigate Doha's funding of propaganda

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani / Getty Images
May 15, 2020

Qatar is spending billions of dollars to infiltrate the American education system as part of a propaganda effort that legal advocates say violates federal statutes and warrants a full-scale investigation, according to a nonpublic memorandum sent from an investigative group to the State Department and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The Qatar Foundation (QF), a state-controlled entity tasked with promoting the country's interests, has spent at least $1.5 billion since 2012 to fund a range of educational initiatives at 28 universities across America, making it one of the education system's most prolific foreign funders, according to information obtained by the Lawfare Project, a U.S.-based legal group that has been petitioning American universities to turn over information about their financial relationships with Qatar.

Foreign funding of American universities has been a concern for some time, with countries such as Qatar, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and others injecting billions into their budgets. The Education Department found in late 2019 that several schools failed to report more than $1.3 billion in foreign funds. Qatar's emergence as one of the leading foreign funders has generated concerns about anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias working its way into the classroom.

The Lawfare Project's investigation, which has been provided to the Trump administration, "reveals considerable Qatari infiltration in the American education system and the media," according to a copy of the investigative materials viewed by the Free Beacon. "This infiltration, funded and organized through QF and [Qatar Foundation International], has turned American universities and primary and secondary school teachers into de facto agents of the Qatari government, conveying its political (and anti-Semitic) views to students and the general population without any acknowledgment of the origins of these views."

Major universities have declined to provide the Lawfare Project with detailed information about their financial relationships with Qatar, leading the group to call for a Trump administration investigation into these schools—including at the University of North Carolina and Duke University, which have both been at the forefront of controversy over foreign funding. The Lawfare Project maintains Qatar is violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires people and entities acting "as an agent of a foreign principal" to register with the American government and disclose foreign influence in the domestic political process. Legal experts with the group also maintain the schools should be subject to FARA disclosure.

These financial relationships are of particular interest given public information about the Qatar Foundation's educational materials, which paints a biased portrait of the Middle East, particularly when it comes to Israel. Teachers selected for these programs vow to implement the lessons learned in their classrooms. The lack of transparency into these programs has only heightened concerns about Qatar's agenda.

The funding for these schools is just one piece of Qatar's efforts to peddle influence in America. The country funds prominent think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and was recently alleged to have funded hack attacks on some 1,500 individuals, including political operatives based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, Republican members of Congress petitioned the Justice Department in June 2019 to investigate Qatar's Al Jazeera network for potential FARA violations.

"Our preliminary review of publicly available documents suggests that FARA applies to Qatar's activities, and requires that the institutions and individuals benefitting from its funding register as agents of Qatar," the Lawfare Project wrote in its report. Such a mandate would force any university taking Qatar's money to register as an agent of a foreign nation, which these schools are likely to reject.

Qatar's influence operations in the United States have caught the attention of federal investigators in recent years. The Department of Education has been investigating how some $235,000 in federal funds were used in 2018 to organize a series of anti-Israel events held jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the Qatar Foundation to be closely involved in UNC's educational initiatives. The Lawfare Project suspects this is the case with many other universities that have so far rebuffed the group's requests for documentation. The Lawfare Project has threatened to take legal action against these schools to compel the release of this financial information.

Qatar is known to spend at least $405 million a year to cover the expenses for six U.S. universities that operate campuses in Doha. They include Northwestern, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon.

Qatar also spends more than $30 million on Middle Eastern-oriented training programs for American students in various schools across the United States. "Schools that accept money from [Qatar Foundation International] are required to give over a degree of access and control to the Qatari organization," according to Lawfare's findings.

The group says this cash is part of an "extensive influence operation in America" that has advanced Qatar's agenda "while inculcating virulent anti-Semitism that continues to spread in American society."

The amount of control that Qatar exerts over the school programs and participants is particularly concerning to investigators with the Lawfare Project and other experts.

"The U.S. Congress just launched an inquiry into efforts by the Chinese government to influence American universities," said Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project. "They should expand the scope to include Qatar, a country that has been playing this game for a long time with almost no transparency and oversight. Our recent FOIA requests reveal that the U.S. government lacks basic information about Qatar's attempts to infiltrate American academia."

At Duke, for instance, Qatar spent $110,000 in 2019 on an "immersion program for teachers of grades 6-12." Teachers from school districts in North Carolina, Illinois, and Virginia who participated in this program were "hand-selected" by QFI, rather than Duke.

An internal copy of the training agenda shows "the curriculum appears to minimize and downplay, if not outright ignore, the history and contributions of non-Muslim people (including Jews and Christians) in the Middle East," according to the Lawfare Project.

Several of the instructors selected for this program later participated in the joint Duke-UNC initiative now being investigated by the Education Department for anti-Israel bias.

"Qatar has given over $1.7 billion to American universities—that we know of. Apparently, not all contributions have been reported, and this sum does not seem to include money given to K-12 programs or money funneled through organizations like Qatar Foundation International," said Gerard Filitti, senior counsel at the Lawfare Project. "The American people are entitled to know what this money is being used for and what specific programs it is funding."

The Lawfare Project has issued document requests to several universities, including UNC and Northwestern. It also issued a FOIA to the Education Department for information relating to Qatar's funding of Northwestern. The DOE could not produce substantial documentation.

"The absence of any documentation connected with this funding is very troubling because it shows that the government lacks information about the nature and extent of Qatar's influence at Northwestern, which even operates a campus in Qatar," Lawfare reported in its findings.

The group is pressuring the Trump administration to aid its ongoing investigations, including by forcing the schools in question to turn over relevant documentation about their ties to Qatar.

The State Department declined to comment on Lawfare's investigation. The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Published under: Qatar