Qatar Foundation International (QFI), the American affiliate of the nominally private Qatar Foundation (QF), claims to be independent of the Qatari regime and even from its own parent organization QF (which is a deeply important tool of Qatari statecraft). Its representatives and executives claim to be interested only in its public mission of supporting Arabic-language studies in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and elsewhere.
Yet QFI and the Qatar Foundation have made strenuous efforts to block the kind of transparency people expect from civil-society organizations. In 2011, QFI terminated its nonprofit foundation and replaced it with a private “not-for-profit” LLC, presumably to avoid making IRS-required disclosures about its operations. What kinds of disclosures were so problematic? Perhaps that the board of directors included Qatari regime figures, such as Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani and Khalid Al-Kuwari.
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, and — among other things — was covering up instances of sexual assault. One struggles to imagine how such sponsorship relates to QFI’s claimed mission of classroom education. Apparently, QFI and AAANY don’t care to explain; because today the AAANY’s sponsors are entirely missing from its webpage, as are the executive staff and the board of directors. To find the record of QFI’s sponsorship, you have to go to the Internet Archive.
More recently, the Qatar Foundation has been filing lawsuits to block Freedom of Information Act requests regarding over $1B that QF has been funneling into elite American universities such as Georgetown and Texas A&M.
Now, with the affair of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, we are finally getting a better picture of QFI’s true agenda.
More than a journalist, Khashoggi had deep ties to Saudi intelligence and the court faction of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a rival to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. “MBS”). Exiled by MBS’s faction for perceived disloyalty, Khashoggi was writing columns for the Washington Post and had begun setting up an advocacy group called “Democracy for the Arab World Now,” perceived to be a threat to the Saudi regime, when he was apparently killed.
We now find that QFI played a role in his activism. The Post reported on December 22 that Khashoggi worked closely with QFI executive director Maggie Salem, to the extent that Salem drafted many of his columns for the Post. Salem, when asked for comment, claimed that the assistance she gave him was only as a friend (they had met during her days as a State Department diplomat) and that she was only helping correct his poor English. Salem claimed that QFI did not try to influence him on behalf of Qatar.
This seems difficult to square with the reporting. According to text messages between Khashoggi and Salem, she “at times shaped the columns he submitted to the Washington Post, proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government.” In other words, Salem was using Khashoggi as a tool against the Saudis. But on behalf of whom?
The answer is clear when we remember that this was not the first time that Salem or QFI had disparaged Saudi Arabia. In July 2017, a month after Saudi Arabia and its allies severed political and economic ties with Qatar, QFI and the Qatari-regime-owned Al Jazeera jointly produced a propaganda video condemning the so-called “blockade.” In November, QFI organized a panel discussion claiming that that the Gulf states’ isolation of Qatar was due to “fake news,” a claim that QFI’s executive director Maggie Salem explicitly endorsed on Twitter. Salem’s handling of Khashoggi seems clearly in the same vein, intended to whip up opposition to Saudi Arabia in order to benefit her paymaster, Qatar.
This is going very far afield from Arabic-language education. QFI and Maggie Salem were actively influencing American politics for the benefit of a foreign power, and trying to hide the fact.
People have been dragged before special prosecutors for less.
It would have been better for everyone if QFI had indeed stuck to education; but apparently its ambitions are greater. Now QFI finds itself on the wrong side of the law. QFI has no choice but to admit its true role and register under FARA as a political agent of the Qatari regime, and to disclose the extent of its influence activities. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.