One month to the day after Sept. 11, 2001, while the memories of Saudi jets ferrying members of the royal family out of the country were still fresh in people's minds, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal made a return trip to the United States.
At "Ground Zero," Alwaleed presented New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with a $10 million check for the families of emergency workers and civilians who were crushed, incinerated or perished in falls on Sept. 11.
The gift was a sign of the prince's empathy with the victims, and of his country's solidarity with the United States, the multibillionaire said.
Then, he released a statement:
"I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance towards the Palestinian cause," the statement read. "While the U.N. passed clear resolutions numbered 242 and 338 calling for the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip decades ago, our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek."
Giuliani famously rejected the money, saying, "I think not only are those statements wrong, they're part of the problem."
More than six years later, the prince's beliefs and money again are being scrutinized, this time for two large donations he gave to Harvard and Georgetown universities in 2005. The gifts of $20 million each were for the establishment or expansion of Middle East studies programs, but critics are questioning whether the prince's involvement has led to pro-Muslim, and specifically pro-Saudi, scholarship.
"What really raises a red flag is the fact that Alwaleed demanded this quid pro quo when he tried to give money to the 9/11 fund," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "In other words, this is clearly how he thinks about how he uses his money. There's the issue laid out. Is there a crass and explicit connection between the Saudi royal family, its members — be they members of the government or not — and donations to institutions?"
It's hard to say, Pletka said. "I think the honest answer is, it has a lot more to do with the institution than it does with the gift. If it's the kind of place that's willing to take money and slant scholarship, then that's money well spent."
And that raises the question of Middle East studies generally — which have come under withering fire from critics in recent years for being anti-Israel and biased against U.S. foreign policy.
Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, said the interdisciplinary nature of Middle Eastern studies programs means there is a great variety in the subject matter taught — from her discipline, art history, to comparative religion, to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The monies donated to universities by Saudi Arabia reflect these broad interests, she said: of the 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, Saudi money goes to fund two chairs in medicine at Johns Hopkins University; one at Harvard Law School; four in Islamic studies, also at Harvard; a director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas, a rotating position (the current holder specializes in Islamic architecture); a poverty action lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's department of economics that funds a professorship, two fellowships, and a research and teaching fund; a two-year post-doctoral research position at University of California, Berkeley; and a chair of Islamic Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Newhall rejects the notion that scholars' research could be bought for 30 pieces of Saudi silver. At the annual meeting of her organization, there is a "fair representation of analysis of contemporary Saudi or Gulf political science, international relations, and so forth," Newhall said. "There has been a lot of stuff thrown around that Middle Eastern scholarship is not critical. On the contrary, it's quite critical."
Saudi Giving at the Heart of a Great Debate Over Middle East Studies
Conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz sees it differently.
Kurtz, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, said the impact of foreign donations on academia is subtle, focusing as much on omission of needed research as the commission of scholarly bias.
"The chance to benefit from Saudi largess means that scholarship emphasizing tensions between the West and the Muslim world, stressing deep-lying cultural differences, rooting terrorism in social and political factors internal to the Muslim world [rather than in the effects of colonialism or American foreign policy], or anything that might be construed by the broader public, here or abroad, as critical of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, Islam, the status of women in the Muslim world, etc., is discouraged," Kurtz said in an e-mail. "In an academic world where a little outside money goes a long way, the truly large sources of funding come from the Saudis or perhaps from other Gulf states. That can't help but fill scholars with hopes of benefiting, and the danger is that they will tailor their scholarship accordingly.
"With prestigious new professorships under the control of academic friends of the Saudis, scholars looking for appointment or seeking a place for one of their graduate students risk a great deal when they write in opposition to the line pursued by the Saudi-funded scholars. It's tough to find a smoking gun on matters of self-censorship and financial inducement, yet those consequences are exceedingly likely when we're dealing with such huge sums of money."
‘A Topic No One Will Touch'
To grasp why the prince's gifts have raised such concern, one must look back at Saudi Arabia's history of extremism.
The country was founded by Prince Alwaleed's grandfather, King Abdul Aziz al Saud, in 1932, and since that time it has developed into the world's leading exporter of petroleum as well as a leading exporter of terrorism. Earlier this month, Stuart Levey, the undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, told the Senate Finance Committee that the Saudi government — meaning the monarchy — has not taken important steps to stem the flow of money from wealthy donors and charities to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
The extremism that gives rise to terrorist sympathies is tolerated and even promoted — by Saudi clerics and government ministers — many of whom are followers of Wahhabism, the sect of Islam that is Saudi Arabia's official state religion.
This has resulted in the institutionalization of extreme religious intolerance, subjugation of women, and anti-Western, anti-democratic ideology, and numerous acts of terrorism against Western and moderate Muslim targets by Saudi nationals. Many have flowed across the Iraqi border to fight against U.S. troops.
It was for these reasons that Rep. Frank R. Wolf , R-Va., sent a letter to Georgetown University President John DeGioia in February asking about Alwaleed's donation, and whether it had influenced scholarship at the school's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding. The president said it did not, and faculty members at the center have questioned Wolf's motivations as possibly being inspired by political expediency, a charge Wolf denies. Alwaleed did not comment for this story after an initial e-mail exchange with a spokesman asking about the subject of this article.
The issue of Saudi funding, however, is one of importance to observers of Middle East curricula, because, they say, there has been a deficit of serious scholarly inquiry into the causes of Middle Eastern terrorism. As a result, study of the issue has largely fallen to journalists and think tanks.
Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America," said Saudi Arabia's gift-giving has a history dating to the 1970s, when the country's lobby was ineffective at countering negative public opinion of the kingdom during the oil embargo.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding as to what the Saudis want from academe," Kramer said. "So it's important first that academe not critique Saudi Arabia. It's become fashionable to critique America's other special relationship, with Israel. The point has been to change the subject — that the problems in the Middle East have nothing to do with what Saudi Arabia is promoting, but it's U.S. policy, and in particular, the other special relationship."
Saudi Giving at the Heart of a Great Debate Over Middle East Studies
The effect of this has been to stifle critical research on Saudi Arabia, research that Kramer says pales in comparison to that being done on Israeli-Palestinian and many other issues.
"It's a topic no one will touch," he said, "and the reason no one will touch it is they all imagine the Saudi prince descending upon them with a gift."
Prince Alwaleed's donation to Georgetown, in fact, was the second-largest donation in the university's more than 200-year history, according to The Hoya, the university's student newspaper.
And the Saudis have given to numerous universities over the years. A review of Department of Education records published by National Review Online shows that Saudi King Fahd, the Royal Embassy, the Saudi Arabia Cultural Mission, and others have given gifts or contracts totaling about $18 million to the University of Arkansas, nearly $13 million to George Washington University, and $10 million to MIT, to name a few recipients.
Saudi Arabia is not unique among Middle Eastern nations in their generosity: Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates all have donated or contracted millions to U.S. universities. Israel, by comparison, has donated very little: about $1.25 million to a handful of universities, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Columbia, according to Department of Education records.
Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., said the idea that Saudi money influences scholarship is "a pure insult."
The donations were given to promote programs run by the universities and the schools set the rules on use of the money, Al-Jubeir said. The intention was to promote a greater understanding of the Middle Eastern region and help the universities. After Sept. 11 many Arab countries started making donations to programs teaching Arabic language and culture, but he said people were criticizing the Middle Eastern studies program at Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies 20 years ago
"The criticism's going to be there, it doesn't matter where the money's coming from," Al-Jabeir said. "The universities are not naive to blindly take the money without creating their own programs here. Claiming that these guys — it's basically an insult to say that they can be bought."
John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said the money his center has received has not had an effect on the center's choice of studies.
"None of us would bill ourselves as specialists of Saudi Arabia," said Esposito, who has authored numerous books, including "Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam," which was published in 2003.
"We were given the endowment because of what we do, and Alwaleed made that clear," Esposito said. "Harvard was given the endowment for what it was going to create. We had something in place, with a track record, and since 1993, that's been the relationship about Islam and the West, and Islam in the West, and I would not have accepted an endowment from anybody if it was not based on what we do and what we will continue to do."
The funding, he said, would go toward expanding the center's think-tank activities, allowing it to run more conferences and workshops, in addition to paying for faculty. But the center would continue to take a broad look at Islam.
Saudi Giving at the Heart of a Great Debate Over Middle East Studies
In his book on terrorism, Esposito describes the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia as "literalist, rigid, and exclusivist. Presenting their version of Islam as the pristine, pure, unadulterated message, Wahhabis, seek to impose their strict beliefs and interpretations, which are not commonly shared by other Sunnis or by Shii Muslims throughout the world."
Esposito goes on to explain how the Saudi government financed the promotion of a Wahhabi-based, pan-Islamic ideology, building mosques and schools and distributing tens of millions of Saudi-approved translations of the Quran.
And what he wrote about what the Saudis do in other countries, his critics say, is the basis for their concern about what the Saudis hope to accomplish with their generosity here.
"Many benefiting from Saudi largess learned that it came with a hefty price tag, the purification or eradication of local belief, practice and culture," he wrote — a purification that included the destruction of shrines and mosques, libraries and schools, and was similar to the actions of the Taliban, Esposito writes.
No one suggests that the Saudis would expect a quid pro quo in the United States that would require the destruction of churches or the Lincoln Memorial, and Esposito points out the "totally different context" of such gifts in this country.
In addition, the center's published reports of its annual activities both before and after it received Prince Alwaleed's donation shows its faculty has taught in lectures and conferences about Wahhabism and Islamism. The focus of many of the center's activities is, as the name would imply, on religious diversity and inter-religious tolerance.
Gloss and Spin
But critics of Esposito say his writings and the center's approach represents a tender view of Wahhabism and its role in creating the terrorist groups that exist today — and that this is the main reason Alwaleed chose to favor Georgetown.
"It gives them very strong incentive not to ask certain hard questions, and in fact if you look at Mideast scholarship as a whole, you'll see very little scholarship on the treatment of women, Saudi backing for Wahhabi-friendly madrasas and schools here in the United States, support of prison chaplains — very little study of terrorists and the role of Islam," said Winfield Myers, a historian, journalist and director of Campus Watch, which studies the question of bias in university scholarship. "And one of the reasons is because professors know that to ask such questions is to risk losing funding."
Nina Shea executive director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, has written extensively on extremism in Saudi schools at home and abroad, including in the United States, as well as official Saudi literature distributed in U.S. mosques.
According to the findings in these reports, beginning in elementary school, young Saudis are taught to "hate" Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims and to condemn non-Wahhabi Muslims, all of which are "enemies." In major mosques across the United States, these sentiments are amplified, teaching contempt for Western civil democracy and non-association with non-Muslims, telling readers while in "infidel" lands to work for the establishment of an Islamic state. While it is unclear whether these prominent mosques endorse the literature, many of these books bear the inscriptions of the Saudi government.
"And here are these well-padded intellectual centers that have never uttered a word on them," said Shea. "They have not done critical analysis on Wahhabism. In fact they've done just the opposite, a gloss, a spin, that's really shocking to those who know Wahhabism."
Because of the U.S. dependence on Saudi oil, she said, Middle Eastern studies centers at U.S. universities should be providing students, who will become the next generation of diplomats and leaders, "some objective analysis towards America, towards the West, towards democracy, towards Christians, towards Jews, towards other Muslims. So I think that the burden is on that center and any center that receives money from Saudi Arabia's royal family members, or from the government itself, to show that they are objective."