Questions arise about Qatar foundation’s role in US

The foundation is coming under additional scrutiny because it and the parent organisation have given hundreds of millions of dollars to US universities and schools.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Lingering ambiguities. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answers questions at a news conference in Doha, January 13. (AFP)
Lingering ambiguities. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answers questions at a news conference in Doha, January 13. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Qatar Foundation International says it “inspires meaningful connections to the Arab World” by supporting programmes in US schools that teach Arabic language and culture.

However, the foundation’s lofty mission has been undermined by reports that the head of the Washington-based organisation helped Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi write columns criticising Saudi Arabia while Riyadh was locked in a bitter dispute with Qatar.

Maggie Mitchell Salem, a former US diplomat who is executive director of the Qatar-funded foundation, is said to have shaped Khashoggi’s columns, urging him to take a harder line against Saudi Arabia and suggesting wording for him to use, stated a December 23 report in the Washington Post — the news organisation that published Khashoggi’s columns in 2017 and 2018.

The revelations raised questions about the foundation and Khashoggi, including whether the foundation has functioned as a propaganda arm of Qatar and whether Khashoggi was an influence tool of Qatar while living in the United States and writing for the Post. Khashoggi was killed October 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The Post’s revelations show how the foundation is “a way for the emirate [of Qatar] to project soft power — usually influence in one way or another — in the service of its national interests,” said David Reaboi, senior vice-president of the Security Studies Group. “We tend to think of foundations as kind of non-partisan non-profits. The Qatar Foundation [International], however, is different. It exists to advance the priorities of the state.”

Salem “took every chance she had to craft articles for Khashoggi taking aggressive stances against Qatar’s main rival, the Saudi kingdom,” Reaboi added via e-mail.

Salem denied any attempt to influence US policy through Khashoggi’s columns, saying she had known the Saudi-born columnist since 2002 and spoke to him as a friend.

The Washington Post, in its article about Salem and Khashoggi, disclosed an e-mail from August in which Salem urged the columnist to write about how Saudi alliances “from [Washington] DC to Jerusalem to rising right-wing parties across Europe… [are] bringing an end to the liberal world order that challenges their abuses at home.”

After expressing hesitation at taking such a forceful stand, Khashoggi replied to Salem: “So do you have time to write it?”

In his August 7 column in the Post, Khashoggi “appears to have used some of Salem’s suggestions,” the Post wrote in its December 23 article. Khashoggi and Salem apparently understood “how his association with a Qatar-funded entity could be perceived, reminding one another to keep the arrangement ‘discreet,’” the Post reported.

As Khashoggi and Salem were communicating, the foundation’s parent organisation in Doha hired an international public-relations company to provide “media outreach, strategic counsel and interview and event planning” in the United States, records reviewed by The Arab Weekly indicate. The company, Ogilvy Group, assigned five public-relations experts in New York and Washington to assist the parent group, records show.

Although the records suggest the PR effort could be standard image-burnishing, Ogilvy’s decision to tell the US Justice Department about its work for the foundation parent indicates that the company was trying to influence US policymakers.

Oglivy filed its records under a US law that requires “agents” of foreign governments to register with the Justice Department and disclose activities they undertake to “influence US public opinion, policy and laws.”

Khashoggi may have violated the law by not disclosing his ties to the foundation, Jim Hanson, president of the Security Studies Group, wrote in a recent blog post. “The op-eds published in the very influential Washington Post certainly qualify as attempts to change US policy against Saudi Arabia,” Hanson wrote.

The foundation is coming under additional scrutiny because it and the parent organisation have given hundreds of millions of dollars to US universities and schools.

An analysis of US Department of Education data shows that from July 2012-July 2018, the foundation’s parent organisation was by far the largest single foreign funder of US colleges and universities, paying $1.2 billion. Almost all of the money went to six American universities to operate campuses at Education City in Doha. There was also $50 million in “gifts” to five US universities.

The second most generous foreign donor, the Indian company HCL Technologies, gave $114 million.

The foundation gave $31 million to dozens of US public schools from 2009-17, the Wall Street Journal reported. The money promotes Arabic programmes in middle schools and high schools and paid for teacher training, materials and salaries, the Journal said.

“There are signs that even these relatively benign programmes have a deeper goal of influence,” stated a soon-to-be-released report by the Middle East Forum, a staunchly anti-Islamist, conservative think-tank in Philadelphia. The report says the foundation “co-produced a propaganda video against Saudi Arabia with Al Jazeera,” the Qatar-funded television broadcaster.

The foundation says on its website that, since its creation in 2009, it has given schools in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom money to establish or expand Arabic language programmes. The foundation funds 24 high schools and middle schools in the United States.

“Academic institutions like the campuses in Education City are where you go to reach all of these people,” Reaboi said, referring to policymakers, journalists and scholars who visit the schools. “As an added bonus, you’ve got access to thousands of impressionable future targets of influence operations as well in the students.”