When Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut ties to the Qatar this week for allegedly financing terrorism, one of my first thoughts was what this might mean for the campus of Texas A&M. No, not the one in College Station. The Aggies established an outpost in Qatar in 2003 to teach engineering in the oil and gas rich nation.
A&M reported to me that there are 30 faculty and 49 staff members at the Qatar campus who are U.S. citizens, but the of the 543 students enrolled at the campus, 93 percent are from the Middle East, and 45 percent of them are Qatari. How many Qatari’s attended the A&M College Station campus in 2016? Twelve. “We are in touch with our students, faculty, and staff in Qatar and our branch campus is operating as normal,” a statement I received from A&M this week read.
With A&M tangled in an international crisis, let’s first look at what the other Arab countries are alleging. Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of financially supporting “various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region,” specifically naming the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, and Al Qaeda. Egypt’s official statement was that “all attempts to stop [Qatar] from supporting terrorist groups failed.” The capper causing the boycott, according to the Financial Times of London, was Qatar’s agreement to pay $1 billion in ransom to an Al Qaeda affiliate to secure the release of 26 members of a Qatari falconry party taken prisoner in southern Iraq. Qatar, meanwhile, called the whole thing a “campaign of lies.”
This is far from the first controversy involving the tiny Gulf nation, which is the world’s top supplier of liquefied natural gas. (The current controversy might help Texas producers on the spot market, but that’s not the point.) Despite exceedingly hot summer temperatures, Qatar won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup in a controversy that included unproven allegations of bribery. In connection to building the World Cup facilities, human rights groups have accused Qatar of effectively turning foreign workers into slaves by stripping them of their passports so they cannot leave. Foreign journalists have been arrested for attempting to report on the migrant worker violations. Qatar also financed the founding of the Al Jazeera television network. The English language version of the network has reported on the human rights violations, but the Arabic version often was the favored network for the speeches of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
So just how did the first state-run university of Texas become wedded to such a questionable state of affairs? Go back to 2003, long before the World Cup, human rights, and Al Jazeera controversies. The emirate had formed the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community, dedicated to building Qatar Education City with the goal of ultimately transitioning the nation into a knowledge economy. The foundation, a combination of private money and government money, would attract American universities to open campuses in Education City by promising to pay for everything from building construction to professors’ salaries, and the universities would receive a management fee. The Washington Post last year reported that A&M receives $76 million a year from the foundation. The 2016 annual report for the campus states, “Texas A&M Qatar’s mission and vision serve the goals of the State of Qatar.”
To celebrate the opening of the campus in 2003, A&M awarded an honorary degree to Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, Consort to the Emir of the State of Qatar for the role she played in bringing the A&M Qatar campus to life. A&M’s opportunity to open a campus in Qatar occurred after the University of Texas turned it down, as did the University of North Carolina and Cornell University, where faculty members expressed concerns over alleged human rights abuses. Cornell later established a medical school in Education City.
In the fourteen years of its existence, Qatar’s A&M campus has been relatively quiet; the only blight was a faculty study from 2009 that found 45 percent of the faculty wanted to quit their jobs. Presumably, morale has improved since then. The same lack of controversy cannot be said for Houston Community College’s foray into establishing a campus in Qatar, which became colloquially known as the Crazy College of Qatar. There were questions about whether HCC Jewish professors were allowed to teach there, and whether male and female students could study together. HCC scaled back last year from managing the campus to merely acting as a consultant.
A&M is not alone in Education City. Other major universities operate campuses in Qatar, including Virginia Commonwealth University, the Weill Cornell Medical College, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, and Northwestern University, which teaches journalism. Student chapters of Amnesty International at A&M and at Cornell were among a group that signed a letter last year demanding the universities engage in pressing for labor reforms. “Qatar is rife with modern slavery and people are dying due to preventable work-related incidents within a few miles of our universities’ campuses,” the letter said.
A new state law signed by Governor Greg Abbott prohibits the state from contracting with any business that has connections to terrorist organizations or Iran. Qatar is among Iran’s chief allies in the Persian Gulf region, and Israel has been critical of Qatar for financial support of Hamas. As the Washington Post reported: “For Hamas, Qatar’s money pumping into the economy is a vital lifeline bolstering its rule.” It is unclear whether Senate Bill 252 would apply to A&M’s contract with the Qatar Foundation since it is the foundation that pays for campus operations, not Texas tax dollars.
A&M spokesman Shane Hinkley declined to address any of the geopolitical questions surrounding the Qatar campus. Hinkley emphasized that the campus is paid for by the Qatar Foundation, but A&M establishes the curriculum and the professors are employees of the College Station university. But between the allegations of Qatar’s financial support of terrorism and of human rights violations, there is enough here for Texans of any political stripe to wonder whether A&M should review its commitments amidst the current hullabaloo (Qatar, Qatar).