Harvard Returns Gift to Arab President

Qualms about United Arab Emirates president's ties prompt return

Harvard agreed to give back a controversial $2.5 million gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after he requested its return, the University announced Monday.

The donation, pledged in 2000 by UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, had been put on hold by the University in May 2003 while it examined his alleged ties to the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up.

The think tank stated on its website that it promotes the unification of Arab nations through historical and cultural education. But students at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) charged that the center promulgated anti-American and anti-Semitic views.

The gift was earmarked to fund an endowed professorship in Islamic religious studies at the Divinity School.

The donation first came under public scrutiny in spring 2003 when students raised concerns about Zayed’s links to the center, which is based in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

A group of HDS students, led by Rachel Lea Fish, researched the issue and brought their concerns to HDS Dean William A. Graham in March 2003. They alleged that the Zayed Center, established in 1999, had hosted speakers claiming that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Zionists, not Nazis, and that Israel plotted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It had also featured less controversial speakers like former President Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore ’69.

At the time, Graham said Harvard had “no intention of keeping the gift if we find that the obvious problems with the center’s website do represent the donor’s views—something we have no concrete evidence of at present.”

Graham said he had first heard about the problems with the center indirectly at the beginning of January 2003, and that when he saw the website, he raised the issue with top University administrators.

HDS then employed a researcher to investigate the issue, according to Graham.

“We’re still trying to get all the facts,” he said then. “We do not have enough answers yet for clarity about the center, its leadership, or its linkages to the donor.”

Graham declined to comment further for this article.

Fish continued to be active in challenging the gift, writing an op-ed in The Crimson and talking to the national press for stories about the issue.

Last August, the UAE closed the Zayed Center due to activities that “starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance.”

“In light of the Zayed Center’s having promoted activities in evident conflict with the purposes of the gift, Harvard indicated to representatives of the donor that the University was seriously considering returning the gift funds,” Monday’s press release said.

The University then decided to put the donation on hold for the academic year, and had yet to reach a decision when the UAE requested the money’s return.

Abdulla Alsaboosi, a diplomat at the UAE embassy, said the request—which he said was communicated to Harvard “lately,” although he did not know exactly when—was made “because the university took too long to reach a decision.”