Varsha Koduvayur: Trump needs to tell Qatar's emir to come clean about gifts to US universities

When President Trump hosts the emir of Qatar at the White House Tuesday, the president should confront him about a topic much discussed in Washington these days: foreign influence.

Qatar has spent tens of millions of dollars on Washington lobbyists, but it spends far more on gifts to top American universities. With total donations of more than $1.4 billion, it is the top foreign donor overall. It has directed funding to Georgetown, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Cornell, Michigan, Northwestern, and others. Georgetown, VCU, Cornell, and Texas A&M have even established branch campuses in Qatar.

The problem, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education announcing an investigation, is that disclosure reports made by Georgetown and Texas A&M “may not fully capture” Qatari gifts, the department noted in the letter. Federal law requires them to report foreign donations worth more than $250,000. The department’s inquiry is part of a broader push to monitor foreign money at American schools.

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Rather than helping to clear things up, Qatar is fighting against transparency, which raises concerns about academic freedom and the Qatari research agenda. President Trump should tell the emir it is time for this to change.

Qatar sends most of its donations to American universities through the state-backed Qatar Foundation. Last October, the foundation took the rare step of suing Texas’ attorney general to prevent him from forcing A&M to disclose its contract with Qatar, claiming that the terms of the contract are a “trade secret” and thus their exposure could hurt the foundation commercially. While A&M is public, private institutions are not obliged to disclose the terms of their contracts – making the Education Department’s probe more vital. (To its credit, VCU disclosed its contract voluntarily).

If the problem of secrecy didn’t raise red flags, this should: the Qatar Foundation is renowned for hosting virulently extremist preachers at its flashy mosque in Qatar’s Education City, located near the satellite campuses of American universities.

Not only do these preachers openly peddle the hate that forms the ideological backbone of groups like the Islamic State, but they also receive a red-carpet welcome to do so. The foundation’s mosque even hosted a preacher who called the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris “the sequel to the comedy film of 9/11,” another who said Jews use human blood to bake Passover matzah, and yet another who justified the devastating 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia as punishment for holiday resorts where “fornication and sexual perversion” is “rampant.”

If an organization funds this kind of extremism, the American public has an interest in knowing what kind of programs it is bankrolling at U.S. universities. It should also be clear that Qatar’s charitable giving is not altruistic. Rather, it seems to hope its donations will encourage American decision-makers to overlook the country’s nefarious actions overseas, such as gifting hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas in Gaza, funding extremist militias in Libya, and paying huge ransoms to terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday President Trump should tell the emir that America welcomes genuine investments in our education system, but not influence peddling. Trump should explicitly note to the emir that his administration will not tolerate the Qatar Foundation’s bad-faith efforts to circumvent federal disclosure rules.

President Trump should tell the emir that America welcomes genuine investments in our education system, but not influence peddling.

Trump may also make clear that meddling in America’s public schools is not welcome. The Qatar Foundation, through its American subsidiary Qatar Foundation International (QFI), has donated more than $30 million to public schools in Texas, Oregon, Arizona, and elsewhere for Arabic language education, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed.

While Qatar’s generosity to K-12 schools pays for teacher training programs, cultural events, and curriculum development, a closer look shows that its support is not always in step with American values. The Foundation’s main curriculum resource website, for example, offers a lesson plan titled “Express Your Loyalty to Qatar,” while another lesson plan states that the U.S. began the Iraq war to “feast on” Iraq’s economy.

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Qatari cash can benefit Americans, but only if it comes with meaningful supervision. Universities should be made to publicize any grants the Qatar Foundation gives, making clear the foundation’s connection to Qatar’s ruling family and its troubling history of supporting extremist preachers. Additionally, local school districts and school boards should carefully review educational materials or curricula distributed by QFI, to ensure that lesson plans are objective and reflect their community’s values.

Qatar is smaller than Connecticut but has vast reserves of natural gas. And the authority of the emir is absolute. The U.S. has the ability to dictate its terms with Qatar. President Trump should not hesitate to do so.