Dr. Oren Litwin
The following overview was written in connection with a Middle East Forum conference, “Qatar: U.S. Ally or Global Menace,” taking place in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 6, 2019. To watch it live-streamed, click here.
Nominally, the mission of the Qatar Foundation International (QFI, an affiliate of the Qatar Foundation or QF, which is based in Qatar itself) is to spread and facilitate the teaching of Arabic. While this does not encompass everything they do, Arabic-language and Arabic-culture teaching is the predominant theme in QFI’s activity. QFI’s activities can largely be divided into two parts:
- Curriculum development and Arabic-teacher training, and
- Directly sponsoring classes and student programming.
In both of these fields, QF’s reach is growing and it is forming partnerships with many powerful nonprofits and government bodies, increasingly including those abroad such as in the U.K., Germany, and Brazil.
However, these seemingly benign programs have a deeper goal of influence. QFI does not merely support the teaching of Arabic; it evangelizes for it. It openly states that part of its motivation is to encourage positive feelings for Arabs and Muslims among the language students. Additionally, promising students are flown out to Qatar for additional programming, and alumni of QFI programs are encouraged to participate in a private forum called
YALLAH and organize activism there.
Beyond that, QFI has been caught acting in the American political scene more than once. Director Maggie Salem ghost-wrote some of the Washington Post articles of Jamal Khashoggi and encouraged him to take an anti-Saudi line; additionally, QFI at one time sponsored a New York Arab-American community association headed by the controversial Islamist activist Linda Sarsour. QFI also co-produced a propaganda video against Saudi Arabia with Al Jazeera; and it is now developing a reboot of an old BBC program, “Doha Debates,” to mobilize youth opinion about Middle-East politics. They intend to use the show to build more relationships with universities, including providing themed curriculums.
In general, QFI has been careful to avoid controversy in its public image. The same cannot be said for its parent organization QF, which has openly supported terror organizations and radical ideologues from the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, QF-run educational institutions and mosques in Qatar often feature viciously extremist speakers. Despite such extremism, QF has lucrative relationships with several flagship American universities, having paid out over a billion dollars since 2011.
The difference in behavior between QF and QFI is tactical only; both organizations are meant to advance Qatari national interests and promote the regime’s “soft power.” As such, QFI initiatives need to be carefully scrutinized for pro-Qatar propaganda, no matter how benign they may seem on the surface.
QFI was set up by QF in 2007, initially as a public nonprofit. (However, in 2011 QFI was reorganized as a private not-for-profit—which meant that it no longer would be required to disclose its activities to the IRS.) According to QFI’s initial mission statement, it was “dedicated to connecting cultures and advancing global citizenship through education”; the current mission statement states that “We engage a global community of diverse learners and educators, fostering global competency and 21st-century skills through the exploration of the Arabic language and the Arab world’s societies and cultures.”
Both of these formulations emphasize cultural contact and global learning. In practice, this is primarily done by promoting the study of the Arabic language, and Arabic culture. Additionally, QFI has sponsored a good deal of work translating English-language educational resources such as Khan Academy videos into Arabic.
But more than a simple educational foundation, QFI is a key instrument of Qatari state policy. The CEO and nominal founder of QFI is Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al-Thani, the daughter of Qatar’s former emir. The chairman of the board of QFI is Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani, another powerful member of the royal family. As of 2012 (the most recent public records available), the treasurer of QFI was Khalid Al Kuwari, a senior Qatari government official and a scion of the powerful Al-Kuwari clan. Also on the board was former U.S. ambassador to Qatar (1995-1998) Patrick Theros, who at the time was the long-serving president of the US-Qatar Business Council.
(There is an intriguing pattern of former ambassadors to Qatar immediately taking lucrative private-sector jobs that remain linked to Qatar. Amb. Joseph LeBaron became vice-chair of Daruna, a firm providing housing for migrant workers in Qatar, the chairman of which is Shaikh Nasser Al-Thani; LeBaron also became a senior advisor to Squire Patton Boggs, which has represented Qatar since 1994. Amb. Chase Untermeyer did business consulting for U.S. firms operating in Qatar, before becoming the founding chairman of the Qatar-America Institute in 2017.)
QFI’s efforts are in line with the Qatari regime’s strategy document “Qatar National Vision 2030,” which calls for “a deepening ‘cultural exchange with the Arab peoples in particular and with other nations in general’ to reflect Qatar’s role as a ‘responsible member of the international community’ with an ‘important and constructive regional role’… QFI’s work thus seems to resemble a one-sided focus on spreading the Arabic language and culture as a means to familiarize a primarily Western audience with the Arab world in general, and Qatar in particular. In the end, QFI’s initiatives are best summarized as an attempt by QF, and by extension the Qatari government, to show its largesse to the world, and to increase its recognition and influence among strategic foreign audiences” (Eggeling 2017).
Teacher training and curriculum development
QFI does not merely assist in teaching Arabic, but evangelizes for it. Its affiliated website I Speak Arabic features an “Arabic Advocacy Kit,” which includes not just resources for teaching Arabic and even founding new Arabic-language programs, but an impassioned section about the many benefits of doing so. Explicitly stated among these is that learning Arabic will improve Americans’ attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims, in addition to deepening appreciation of Arabic culture. Additionally, QFI provides a social media toolkit which includes readymade graphics that celebrate QFI’s role in providing Arabic study.
QFI spends a great deal of energy forming partnerships with educational organizations, and sponsoring training workshops and programs for teachers. QFI collaborates with dozens of different organizations and sponsors programs across the country, and indeed the world.
Partners include the Middle East Outreach Council, the National Council for the Social Studies (which helped put on the Arizona workshop mentioned above), the Green Bronx Machine, the Joint National Committee for Languages, and internationally the German-Arabic Freundschaftgesseleschaft, the British Council, UNRWA, the American Councils for International Education, and PYXERA Global (which began as a U.S. government program). QFI also has some involvement in Brazil.
Sponsored events include Big Ideas Fest, the Teacher Leadership Program hosted by U. Texas at Austin, and free “educator tours” through Qatar and Oman which are awarded via a grant-application process. QFI also holds periodic conferences on curriculum development.
Additionally, QFI organizes Arabic-language teachers into regional organizations called Arabic Language Teachers Councils (example) to facilitate the exchange of ideas and resources between teachers, and doubtless to preserve QFI’s influence over classroom instruction and content.
Beyond live events, QFI provides huge amounts of curriculum materials and professional-development resources electronically. Its flagship resource, a web portal called Al Masdar, contains thousands of lesson plans not only about Arabic language, but about broader topics in Middle Eastern culture and politics. Some of these are sourced from the Zinn Education Project, with predictable results—Israeli and American military forces are accused of terrorism, and the Iraq War was carried out to “feast on” the Iraqi economy. Other lesson plans are produced by Qatari sources, including one titled Express Your Loyalty to Qatar.
Additionally, in 2017 the Annenberg Foundation disclosed that it had partnered with QFI to produce “The Teaching Arabic Collection,” a professional-development library of videos of best-practice Arabic classroom techniques.
However, a friendly teacher reported that at a QFI training session he attended, in January 2018 in Arizona, the presenters gave a biased view of Middle-Eastern politics that blatantly favored Qatari interests, and obscured QFI’s ties to the Qatari regime. QFI program officer Craig Cangemi introduced QFI as an American member organization of the Qatar Foundation, which he blandly described as “a private, education-focused foundation in Doha, Qatar.” In fact, QF is a massive apparatus directly managed by Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family, which conducts a tremendous range of state-development activities ranging from technology research to higher education.
Cangemi insisted that QFI sets its own policies, saying, “We are an autonomous organization… [W]e do not have any ties with Qatar: the government, the state, or really [the] Qatar Foundation.” This is patently false, as noted above. Other presenters at the event whitewashed Qatar’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, while at the same time justifying the Brotherhood ideology as “not extremist.”
QFI has partnered with the Digital Classroom Foundation to translate lessons from Khan Academy into Arabic, initially for the benefit of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Additionally, QFI has sponsored the development of an Arabic language course by the popular app Duolingo, which is now due to have a beta release in May.
Unsurprisingly, QFI has been deeply involved with the educational-technology space. QFI is/was a sponsor of the popular podcast Edtech, and also sponsored “Global Education Day,” which took place at the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) conference.
Involvement in Schools
QFI has given over $30 million dollars in grants to public schools around the country—one of the first of which was Cholla High in Tucson, AZ, which received nearly half a million dollars. QFI’s website lists programs in several states including California, Texas, Montana, New York, and more.
QFI also provides scholarship opportunities and advanced classes involving travel to Qatar itself to promising students; however, one website claims that QFI program alumni, to be eligible for further grants and advanced programs, need to remain active on QFI’s private YALLAH platform. YALLAH is used (among other things) to coordinate global activism among its members. QFI executive director Maggie Salem also writes glowingly about QFI program alumni who go on to volunteer with UNRWA, the U.N. agency focusing on Palestinian refugees, with which QFI has close ties. QFI (and possibly QF) are also apparently sponsors of the National Youth Leadership Council.
QFI and QF are even more active on the college level. As noted, QFI has several partnerships with colleges such as University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern, Portland State, Duke, and UC Berkeley to provide teacher training and student programs. Given QFI’s opaque structure, there is no way to know just how much funding QFI is providing. However, thanks to government disclosures, we know that its parent organization QF has been exceedingly generous to American universities. QF has lucrative contracts with several universities to run satellite campuses in Doha’s “Education City” under the authority of QF; Georgetown has received over $300 million to date, Northwestern nearly that much. In fact, Qatar has paid more money to American colleges than any other country on the planet, over a billion dollars since 2011.
The details of these contracts, and any quid pro quos demanded by the Qataris, are generally kept secret—though Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) was forced to disclose its own contract because of public records laws. While nominally VCU maintains full academic independence, QF has troubling privileges to determine VCU’s budget and research agenda, and has considerable influence over administrative appointments.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M was required to release details of its own QF program under similar laws, but QF actually filed suit to block the release. Its legal representative, the political powerhouse Squire Patton Boggs (which has represented the Qatari regime since 1994, and in 2011 hired former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Joseph LeBaron as a “senior advisor”), claimed that the details of QF’s contract with Texas A&M constituted trade secrets, and were thus exempt from public-disclosure laws.
But it is clear that these rich contracts are affording Qatar the chance to influence university campuses in the United States itself, not merely the branches in Doha. For example, in November 2018 VCU held
QF in Qatar
QF schools and mosques in Qatar often host the most virulently radical Islamist preachers, including one who referred to the 9/11 attacks as a “comedy film,” another who said that Jews bake Passover matza with human blood (“believing that this brings them close to their false god”), and a third who accused the Shia of “poisoning” and “sorcery.”
A featured lecturer of the QF-backed Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies was Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti, presently a professor at the QF’s flagship Hamad bin Khalifa University. El-Shinqiti was once an imam at a West Texas mosque, where he openly encouraged young people to engage in terror attacks against Israel and Egypt. The dean of the QF’s College of Islamic Studies (CIS) is Emad al-Din Shahin, a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood whose prominence led Egypt’s military regime to sentence him to death in absentia. Other CIS faculty are connected to the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Muslim Brotherhood’s American think tank which is the nexus of a terror-finance apparatus called the SAAR Network. These CIS faculty include Louay Safi, former IIIT executive director and research director, and Jasser Auda, an IIIT lecturer. Other faculty seem closely aligned with the IIIT’s long-term goal of the “Islamization of knowledge,” including one professor working under Auda who has written about “Revelation as a source of engineering sciences”(!).
QF is a committed supporter of Islamist extremism, particularly at its Al-Qaradawi Center for Islamic Moderation and Renewal—named in honor of Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who chaired the committee that established the Center’s faculty. (Al-Qaradawi has repeatedly endorsed suicide bombings, terrorist attacks against the United States, and the total extermination of the Jews. He is barred from entering the U.S. because of terrorism concerns.) And in 2012, QF hosted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (who was just designated as a terrorist by the Federal government) and gave him a “victory shield” featuring the Dome of the Rock.
An American educator who worked at a QF educational institution in Doha told the Middle East Forum that faculty were not allowed to purchase maps showing the state of Israel, the entire territory of which was instead labeled “Palestine.” Moreover, even tangentially mentioning the existence of Israel or the Holocaust in class would provoke severe reprisals from the Qatari Ministry of Education. The official government policy was “Israel doesn’t exist.” As the educator put it, “They’re teaching their populace… the nonexistence of Israel.”
QFI’s Influence Operations
Maggie Salem often plays a larger foreign-policy role for Qatar than her official position at a not-for-profit foundation would suggest; on several occasions she has spoken at US-Qatar Business Council events, including one in 2015 hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which featured several members of the Qatari royal family. More recently, she was interviewed by several media outlets including NPR on topics surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
In December 2018, news reports surrounding the Khashoggi kiling revealed the role played by Salem, who was secretly ghostwriting articles for Khashoggi and encouraging him to take a hard anti-Saudi Arabia line. QFI also provided Khashoggi the services of a translator, whose salary it paid.
Sometime before 2014, QFI sponsored the Arab American Association of New York, at a time when radical Islamist activist Linda Sarsour was its executive director.
In July 2017, QFI and Al Jazeera jointly produced a propaganda video condemning the so-called “blockade” of Qatar. In November, QFI organized a panel discussion claiming that that the Gulf states’ isolation of Qatar was due to “fake news,” a claim that Maggie Salem explicitly endorsed on Twitter.
For decades now, Qatar—a tiny but rich country caught between regional great powers—has sought to protect itself by generating “soft power.” Its sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its state-owned media firm Al Jazeera, have given Qatar tremendous influence across the Muslim world (and increasingly, across the West as well). Its diplomatic ties to opposing powers such as the United States and Iran, or Israel and Hamas, allow Qatar to pose as the honest broker. Its fantastic hydrocarbon wealth has let its sovereign-wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, build up massive stakes in prominent banking firms such as Barclays and Credit Suisse.
The Qatar Foundation and Qatar Foundation International are an integral part of this wider strategy. The role of QFI is to cultivate a growing population of American students who are friendly to Qatar, receptive to its influence, and willing to spread that influence still further. More widespread study of Arabic, by itself, is a good thing; the better we can interact directly with the Muslim world, the less that Islamists can pose as its self-appointed representatives. But American educators must not allow their classrooms to become vectors of Qatari propaganda.
Dr. Oren Litwin is the Associate Director of the Islamism in Politics Project.