Arab Funding in US Universities – Endeavouring Pan-Islamism Through Education

  • Middle Eastern nations are leveraging their wealth to gain a significant foothold in global affairs through strategic investments in technology, education, and infrastructure.
  • U.S. higher education institutions received approximately $13 billion in reported contributions from foreign sources between 2014 and 2019, with a significant portion from the Middle East.
  • Qatari-funded programs and students on U.S. campuses have been linked to an increase in tensions around topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict​.
  • The situation in US universities reflects a broader dilemma facing global higher education: balancing the benefits of international funding and maintaining academic integrity while protecting national interests.

The multi-polar world is today’s reality. Former global powerhouses like the USA and Russia must recognize the accelerating influence of other nations and the dynamic shifts reshaping the world order at unprecedented speed and scale.

While China has been a known factor in this phenomenon, one must not forget about the Middle Eastern countries. The emergence of a multipolar world is increasingly evident as the influence of China and the Middle East reshapes global dynamics. China, with its vast economic power and strategic Belt and Road Initiative, is extending its influence across Asia, Africa, and Europe, challenging the traditional hegemony of Western powers. Concurrently, Middle Eastern nations, particularly those enriched by hydrocarbon exports, are leveraging their wealth to gain a more significant foothold in global affairs through strategic investments in technology, education, and infrastructure, as well as through active roles in international diplomacy and conflict mediation. This shift towards a multipolar world order suggests a future where a single power no longer dominates global governance but is instead characterized by multiple centres of power, each with its interests and approaches to international relations. This development could lead to a more diversified global landscape but also introduce complexities in managing international peace and cooperation.

Global influence extends far beyond the realms of trade or defence. It also permeates the softer sectors of power such as education, culture, movies, and entertainment, playing a pivotal role in shaping the minds and ecosystems of future generations.

In the report released by The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) and Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) titled, “The Corruption of the American Mind: How Foreign Funding in U.S. Higher Education by Authoritarian Regimes, Widely Undisclosed, Predicts Erosion of Democratic Norms and Antisemitic Incidents on Campus”, several key findings and concerns are raised about the influence of foreign funding on U.S. higher education. The report highlights significant issues, including the erosion of democratic norms and an increase in antisemitic incidents on campus, which are attributed to undisclosed foreign investments from authoritarian regimes.

Massive Funding: U.S. higher education institutions received approximately $13 billion in reported contributions from foreign sources between 2014 and 2019, with a significant portion from authoritarian regimes, particularly from the Middle East.

Non-Disclosure and Regulation Issues: A substantial portion of this funding, $4.7 billion, was previously undisclosed, despite legal requirements for transparency under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

Impact on Campus Climate: Institutions receiving such funding showed a higher prevalence of actions to silence or punish academics and increased exposure of students to antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric. This was more pronounced in institutions that received funding from Middle Eastern countries.

Increased Anti-Semitism: There was a strong correlation between foreign funding, particularly from the Middle East, and increased levels of campus antisemitism. These institutions had about 300% more antisemitic incidents than those that did not receive such funding.

Temporal Analysis of Funding and Incidents: Statistical analysis using Granger Causality indicated a positive association between the receipt of foreign funds and both campus and county-level antisemitic incidents.

The report suggests that non-transparent foreign funding correlates with the erosion of democratic norms and increases in antisemitism in American higher education. This poses challenges to academic freedom and liberal democratic values on campuses.

Recent scrutiny has intensified over the financial ties between U.S. universities and Middle Eastern countries, particularly Qatar. The focus has primarily been on how these financial contributions influence campus climates, and academic freedom, and potentially facilitate foreign policy agendas.

Historical Context and Current Dynamics

Qatar’s involvement in American higher education is not a new phenomenon. For decades, the country has been strategically placing its wealth within U.S. institutions to extend its influence and foster international dialogue. Prominent universities like Texas A&M, Cornell, and Georgetown have established satellite campuses in Doha as part of Qatar Foundation’s Education City initiative. This sprawling complex serves as a hub for educational and cultural exchange but has also raised concerns about the underlying intentions and consequences of such investments​ (The Times of Israel)​.

Academic Influence and Controversies

These financial ties have led to various controversies, particularly concerning the nature of academic freedoms afforded at these foreign campuses compared to their American counterparts. Critics argue that while these campuses promote a facade of liberal education, they may simultaneously restrict free expression and academic inquiry, particularly around topics sensitive to the Qatari government​ (The Times of Israel)​.

Moreover, there has been an increasing concern about the potential for campuses in the U.S. to become battlegrounds for foreign political agendas, particularly those aligned with Qatar’s foreign policy interests. Instances of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments on campuses have been linked to these broader geopolitical influences, raising alarms about the potential for educational spaces to become platforms for ideological indoctrination​ (The Times of Israel)​.

The Israel-Palestine question, charges of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and fights over free speech are tearing US universities at the seams. The latest escalation began at Columbia University, where president Minouche Shafik called the police – rather than campus security – on students. The students had been protesting the Gaza violence, and for their universities to divest from companies that profit from Israeli occupation. The last time the university called the police on protesting students was in 1968, at the peak of protests against the Vietnam War.

In recent weeks of April 2024, the slogan “Death to America” has seemingly gained steam among anti-Israel agitators sweeping across U.S. universities. The anti-Israel demonstrations spreading across the country have recently taken on an anti-American tone, with students at the University of Michigan who participated in the protests being given pamphlets titled “10 Anarchist Theses on Palestine Solidarity in the United States.” One of the pages stated, “Freedom for Palestine means Death to America.”

The pamphlets have emerged as anti-Israel protests continue to gain momentum, leading to multiple days-long “encampments” at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States. 

Response and Reevaluation

The protests engulfing many college campuses are spurring debate about U.S. foreign policy, free speech, and the purpose of higher education. However, there’s a more basic question that journalists, especially, have to answer: What should we call these protests?

The Associated Press refers to the demonstrators as “anti-war protesters.” CBS News has used the same label and has also described the protesters as “supporters of Palestinian rights.” Many outlets—including The Post, USA Today, Axios, CNN, Politico, and The New York Times—have opted for a “pro-Palestinian” stance in their reporting and editorials.

In response to the complexities of foreign funding, some universities have begun reevaluating their partnerships. For example, Texas A&M’s decision to close its Qatar campus highlights the growing scrutiny and the recalibration of risk associated with hosting these programs amid unstable geopolitical climates​ (The Times of Israel)​.

The situation in US universities reflects a broader dilemma facing global higher education: balancing the benefits of international funding and collaboration with the need to maintain academic integrity and protect national interests. As universities navigate these waters, the debate continues about the role of foreign funding in shaping the educational landscape in the U.S. and beyond​ (The Times of Israel)​​ (The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)​.

Navigating Ethical and Strategic Challenges

As universities confront the ethical and strategic implications of accepting Middle Eastern funding, they must weigh their commitment to academic freedoms against the allure of substantial financial support. This predicament is compounded by the potential for such investments to sway campus narratives or influence educational policies that reflect donor nations’ geopolitical interests.

Case Studies and Examples of Influence

Instances of potential influence are evident in various forms across U.S. campuses. From hosting academic conferences that subtly promote Qatar’s foreign policy objectives to fostering environments where anti-Israel rhetoric is prevalent, the impact of these financial ties can be significant. Such activities raise questions about the independence of academic institutions and the extent to which they can be co-opted as vehicles for foreign propaganda​ (The Times of Israel)​.

The Impact on Campus Culture

Beyond the geopolitical implications, there is a profound impact on campus culture and student experiences. The introduction of diverse international perspectives is invaluable; however, when it crosses into the realm of indoctrination or spreads divisive ideologies, it challenges the core principles of higher education. For instance, the presence of Qatari-funded programs and students on U.S. campuses has been linked to an increase in tensions around topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, highlighting the delicate balance schools must maintain in fostering an inclusive yet neutral academic environment​ (The Times of Israel)​.

Looking Forward: Policies and Practices

Looking forward, universities are tasked with developing robust policies and practices to safeguard their academic missions while engaging with international partners. This includes transparency in funding sources, clear guidelines on the use of donated funds, and ongoing assessments of the impacts on academic content and campus life. By doing so, institutions can better manage the influences of foreign money and ensure that their educational objectives are not compromised.


The ongoing debate around Middle Eastern funding in U.S. universities not only reflects the broader challenges facing global higher education today but also underscores the critical need for institutions to maintain their core missions as bastions of learning and free thought. As universities navigate the complexities of foreign funding, the imperative to uphold vigilance and integrity is paramount to prevent educational spaces from becoming arenas for global political activism.

Educational institutions must ensure they do not become centres of political influence where foreign agendas sway young minds. It is essential to find a balance between allowing students the right to express their opinions and ensuring that acquiring skills and knowledge remains a top priority. Universities should foster environments where diverse viewpoints are heard without compromising the educational integrity and objectivity that underpin academic inquiry and intellectual growth.

Ultimately, while universities play a crucial role in shaping future leaders, they must carefully manage their relationships with external funders to minimize any potential overreach into academic autonomy or the corruption of educational values.

(The author is a student of law and a communication professional. Her interests lie in governance, public policy & law and is part of the foundational batch of the Indian School of Public Policy, New Delhi)

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  1. The Marxists still rule the campuses and are destroying the future of students in the name of protests. The US has a weak government or one that panders to these ruffians who are holding the campuses to ransom in the name of right to protest. The article is a timely reminder for universities in India to not let this disease reach our shores.

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