Three months after students at Harvard Divinity School called for the return of his $2.5 million gift, the president of the United Arab Emirates appears to be abandoning a controversial research center that has been accused of anti-Semitic and anti-American activities.
Following a flurry of reports by Arab media outlets this week, a diplomat who asked not to be named confirmed yesterday that the United Arab Emirates will withdraw its support for the Zayed International Center for Coordination and Follow-up. The center was described on its website as "a fulfillment of the vision" of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the 85-year-old president of the small Persian Gulf state.
The center has been the subject of controversy since May, when Harvard Divinity School student Rachel Fish publicly requested that Harvard give back Sheikh Zayed's donation because of his apparent ties to the center, whose director denounced Jews as "the enemies of all nations" at a conference last year, according to news reports of the event. Harvard assigned a researcher months ago to investigate ties between Sheikh Zayed and his center, but a spokeswoman for Harvard's president said yesterday that the university had not decided what to do with the donation.
"It is a complicated matter, and we have to look at everything," said Lucie McNeil.
She said the university would not comment on the UAE's withdrawal "until it's official." Founded in 1999, the center champions unity between Arab nations but has also hosted speakers who contend the United States was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and that the Jewish Holocaust never happened.
It has attracted strong criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, both Jewish human rights groups. The criticism caused an elementary school in California to reconsider a $15,000 donation from Sheikh Zayed this summer.
The decision to withdraw support from the center was made "by concerned authorities," said the diplomat at the UAE's embassy in Washington, who said officials intend to "review and assess the center's activities."
The $2.5 million gift from Sheikh Zayed to Harvard, negotiated in the summer of 2000, was to create an endowed professorship in Islamic studies at the divinity school; the position has never been filled.
After she learned of the donor's link to the Zayed Center earlier this year, Fish researched the center's activities and shared her concerns with the dean of the divinity school, William A. Graham, and Harvard president Lawrence Summers.
When administrators did not act on her request that they give back the money, Fish started an online petition that has attracted thousands of signers. At her graduation in June, she handed a copy of the petition to Graham as she crossed the stage to collect her diploma.
Now working for The David Project in New York, Fish said she was stunned at the latest development.
"This is incredible to me," she said. "I expected Harvard to make a decision long before the United Arab Emirates."
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement of support for the decision, with national director Abraham H. Foxman voicing hope that the League of Arab States -- also closely affiliated with the Zayed Center -- "will follow the lead of Emirates officials and not resuscitate this discredited think tank."
But the center and its activities, are likely to persist, said Steven Stalinsky, who wrote several studies on the Zayed Center for the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, D.C., where he is executive director. He said he expects the center to leave the United Arab Emirates and resurface with another name and sponsor, possibly the Arab League. "People who care about bad press aren't going to want it," he said.
Stalinsky said the move by the UAE probably reflects a growing sense by Sheikh Zayed, and the rest of the royal family, that the center has become an embarrassment. Three weeks ago, Stalinsky said, he received a letter from two Egyptian philosophy professors who identified themselves as consultants to the Zayed Center, acknowledging his criticism of the center and inviting him to speak there.
Following recent accusations of anti-Semitism, the center "is intent upon steering a new course which aims at establishing a genuine dialogue between the Arab culture and the West," the letter said.
The Zayed Center's website yesterday morning featured links to rebuttals of some recent criticism of its activities and an internal report on its own activities titled "Virtue of Honesty." The center is "being exposed to a biased campaign launched by some Zionist media circles . . . who usually focus on one or two events and disregard many," the internal report states.
By late afternoon, the site was unavailable, displaying only a message in English and Arabic that said, "This site has been stopped."