It's hard to bite the hand that feeds

Ahead of Lord Woolf’s report on the scandal of the LSE’s links with Libya, Christopher Davidson examines the issue of UK university funding by Gulf autocracies in the light of the Arab Spring

October 27, 2011

The killing of Mu’ammer Gaddafi last week brought to a dramatic conclusion the battle for the despot’s home city of Sirte, and the symbolic end of the revolution. But in reality the Gaddafi regime had been routed long ago, and the former rebels and the institutions still standing following months of civil war had already turned their minds to the future. An example of this was the report some weeks ago that Tripoli University had requested the return of the Libyan state funds that had been ploughed into British universities, most notably the London School of Economics, in recent years. Its claim that the money was needed to bolster Libya’s higher education sector and help ends meet in Tripoli, or at the very least to help finance Libyans trying to study in the UK, was hardly major news. But it was still a fascinating development. After all, with a population of only 6.5 million, some 2 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves and a fairly healthy gross domestic product per capita - nearly $15,000 (£9,660) before 2011 - Gaddafi’s regime should have had more than enough resources to spend on its own backyard. So why were these overseas funding adventures such a high priority for the Libyan government, or rather its ruling dynasty? And if the funding of education and research opportunities really was the rationale behind these “investments”, then why did they take precedence over more pressing domestic needs?

In some ways, the Gaddafi higher education scenario reminds me of my past life working at a state-controlled university in one of the Gulf monarchies. Although a pleasant and rewarding job, with delightful colleagues and students, the university - much like its counterparts in other Gulf states - was constantly strapped for cash.

Salary freezes were commonplace and the (primarily Western) administrators were always lurching from one budget crisis to another. As far as I could see, there was little else they could do, with the situation often being described to me as “hanging off the end of a sinking ship”. The blame, within the academic community at least, was usually levelled at the Ministry for Higher Education, or the competence of the sheikh in question - who was a cousin of the ruler. But my understanding was that he too was operating under very tight conditions. As in Libya, there should have been no excuse for this.

If anything, this country - the United Arab Emirates - was even wealthier, with only a tiny indigenous population, vast oil and gas revenues, and, at that time at least, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

But again, as with Gaddafi, there seems to be a fascination in many of the Gulf monarchies - most of which are similarly autocratic, and have been similarly flush - with spending vast sums on overseas education projects, even if the domestic sector is left to languish.

Countless millions, originally derived from oil revenues, have poured into the funding of Western universities, especially in English-speaking countries.

Sometimes the funds have been channelled through government organisations or charitable “foundations”, sometimes donated by key members of the ruling elite, and in some cases they have even come directly from the pockets of ruling families. Certainly, in very few instances have they come out of state budgets, and they have mostly been orchestrated by the more traditional, well-connected power brokers in these countries.

The historic links between the UK and the region have meant that the Gulf monarchies have often been particularly attracted to funding new buildings in UK universities (often centres for Islamic or Middle Eastern studies or libraries), the endowment of chairs and postgraduate scholarships. In fact, it would now be difficult to find a top-five UK university that did not have examples of all three types of gift. Naturally enough, all tend to carry the name of the individual or institutional donor, but this in itself need not be a cause for concern.

Such funding has found its way into American universities, too, but the US has historically been a more problematic recipient given the relative influence of its Israel lobby. In 2003, for example, the Harvard University staff and student body rejected a chair in Islamic studies from Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan on the grounds of anti-Semitism and well-documented human rights abuses in the UAE, including the use of child slaves as camel jockeys. Similarly, in 2007 the University of Connecticut pulled out of a relationship with Dubai for much the same reasons. By comparison, the UK represents a much softer underbelly, with less potential for embarrassment.

Over the past five years or so, the funding strategy has been augmented by actually bringing Western universities to the region. In this case, most of the invited institutions have been from the US, but others from the UK and elsewhere in Europe are also involved. Both New York University and Paris-Sorbonne have set up camp in Abu Dhabi, while in Qatar a host of universities including Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell and University College London have opened branches.

Crucially, as with the overseas funding strategy, the resources for these satellite campuses - most of which have their generous operating costs underwritten by their hosts - do not come out of state budgets but from entities closely tied to members of the countries’ ruling families. In Qatar’s case it is the Qatar Foundation - headed by Sheikha Mouza bint Nasser al-Misnad, the emir’s wife - while in Abu Dhabi’s case it is the Mubadala Development Company - headed by Sheikh Mohamad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince and de facto ruler. As such, the institutions involved tend to remain in fairly distinct, well-funded bubbles that operate largely in parallel to the host country’s less-endowed existing state universities.

So, with the vast sums being poured into these gifts and projects, what is in it for the donors and backers? Undoubtedly there are some altruistic motives, especially when it comes to bringing prestigious universities to countries that can greatly benefit from their expertise (and funding UK universities is surely a better use of resources than spending on yet more armaments). Notably, there have been some genuine efforts to kick-start post-oil knowledge economies by establishing clusters of universities and research institutes (although their impact has thus far been rather limited). But there is much more to it. As with the various Gulf-owned European football clubs - the most high-profile example being Manchester City, which is being lavished with investment by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the UAE - other high-profile purchases such as the London Eye and Madame Tussauds, and stakes taken in Ferrari and Aston Martin, the funding of universities helps boost both commercial and diplomatic relations with the target country.

It is a way of raising international profiles and casting the Gulf monarchies in a favourable light. After all, just as ownership of a sports team can make a sheikh or prince seem a “good guy” to a Western audience, so too can a university gift make him seem a “philosopher king” rather than just an autocrat. Libya, of course, played this one well, with Gaddafi’s most bloodthirsty son, Saif al-Islam, previously being a darling of the London circuit for this very reason.

Domestic consumption matters too, of course. In authoritarian states that rely on distributing just enough wealth and privileges to their populations to secure their political acquiescence, it matters greatly that unelected rulers are able to govern with some degree of natural legitimacy. In the past, this usually came from ancestry, tribal lineage or, in Saudi Arabia’s case, religious credentials. In more recent years, these highly dynamic autocracies have been scouring around for as many other sources of legitimacy as possible. New environmental and green energy projects, for example, tend to win complimentary domestic headlines for rulers and their ministers, despite most of these states having the highest carbon footprints on the planet. Pushing women into ministerial and diplomatic roles is now also popular, even though women remain fundamentally disadvantaged by prevailing legal systems and - in Saudi Arabia’s case - cannot even get behind a steering wheel.

Another good one has been democracy itself: staging carefully controlled elections for institutions that largely remain toothless has been very much part of the story for the past decade. University funding ticks the same boxes. Consider the case of New York University: having established a branch in Abu Dhabi, its costs are underwritten. With plenty of resulting media coverage, the relationship allows the ruling family to play upon a strong “soft power” link with a top university in the world’s most powerful democracy. One of the crown prince’s right-hand men now even sits on the university’s board of governors.

Another, more subtle benefit for the regimes is some degree of influence over academic fields themselves. Most of the gifts to UK universities have no strings attached and there is generally no follow-up control, but this does not mean that self-censorship will not take root in the recipient institutions. After all, if a university receives a major grant from such a source, it is likely that it will hope to get more from the same pot in the future. This will probably become more commonplace as the UK higher education sector braces itself for a lengthy period of austerity and the research councils tighten their belts.

In such circumstances, junior members of staff or PhD students may feel uncomfortable pursuing sensitive topics relating to these countries. Imagine, for example, writing a negative critique of a regime that has paid for your salary, your scholarship or the building you sit in. In many UK universities, this is not only a possible scenario but now rather likely. What it may lead to (and in some cases it already has led to) is a field that carefully skirts around the key “red line” subjects, such as political reform, corruption, human rights and revolution.

Given the 2011 Arab Spring and the almost domino-like collapse of the old republican dictators, it is perhaps more apparent than ever that these subjects need to be carefully studied, and in much more detail than before. Although the Gulf monarchs appear more resilient than the likes of Assad, Mubarak and Ben Ali - mostly because of their ability to keep subsidising their populations - they are nonetheless also coming under pressure.

Clearly part of the Arab Spring, Bahrain’s Shia majority population has been brutally suppressed by a combination of state security, mercenaries and Saudi troops. Its Sunni ruling family is now staring anarchy in the face. Riots in Oman have led to deaths and quickly arranged promises from Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said to create thousands of new jobs. Saudi women have begun recording themselves driving in a show of defiance and demonstrations have taken place in its poorer Eastern Province. Bloggers and journalists who have criticised the ruling family have been arrested in Kuwait, and its Ministry of Interior is dogged by allegations of torture. Even the glitzy UAE is not what it used to be. Six months ago, five citizens were detained for calling for a constitutional monarchy and a proper parliament. One of their number, Nasser bin Ghaith, is an academic and has even been a lecturer at the country’s Sorbonne branch campus. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the UAE’s foreign university community has remained silent. The five men remain in prison, with still no conclusion to their trial, and they are probably the tip of the iceberg.

On a macro level, the universities that remain interested in these kinds of relationship will, I think, contribute to the overall risk faced by the UK and other Western democracies in the wake of the Arab Spring. Having been badly wrong-footed by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and with Gaddafi’s collapse exposing an awkwardly friendly British foreign policy towards a terror-sponsoring regime, there is an acute and perfectly understandable possibility that the people of the new Arab democracies, probably led by Egypt, will be distrustful of those Western institutions that continue to do business with the Middle East’s remaining autocrats.

These rulers may not face revolution on the immediate horizon and as such the reputational risk to the West is certainly less. But it is still there and is growing by the day. The large, youthful, English-speaking and internet-savvy populations of these countries are unlikely to tolerate the current set-up for much longer, and the Western democracies - including their universities - need to make sure they are not out of step with the region’s reality.

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