Dubai royal family donations undermine Trinity’s progressive politics

The funding crisis forces college to make difficult choices on the donations it accepts

The Al Maktoum Foundation, the charitable arm of the Dubaian royal family, stands behind Trinity’s new Al Maktoum Centre for Middle Eastern Studies. Money donated to Trinity by the Foundation is to be used, among other things, to fund four new professorships within the department. The donation from the Al Maktoum Foundation raises important questions about where Trinity receives funding from, and whether it will have a negative impact on independent academia. Is it not hypocritical to take funding from a country that has a poor human, women’s and LGBT rights record when Trinity models itself as a beacon of progressiveness? 

For Middle Eastern states flushed with money, donating to higher education is both excellent diplomacy and publicity. While we do not know the exact value of the Al Maktoum Foundation’s donation, a figure of €5.5 million was previously rumoured to have been paid for the new department — a small dent in their fortune, considering the Dubai Royal Yacht purchased in 2001 cost over €360 million.

“Trinity’s acceptance of funding from the Al Maktoum Foundation implicitly suggests an acceptance of the many social wrongs currently being practiced in Dubai.”

While Dubai may not be as bad as the likes of Saudi Arabia in terms of human rights violations, its record is by no means untarnished. The outgoing chancellor of the College, Dr Mary Robinson, drew stringent criticism last year for being pictured with Princess Latifa al Maktoum, the daughter of the current Sheikh. Princess Latifa had been captured while crossing the Indian Ocean on a yacht in an attempt to flee from her father’s rule. Dr Robinson was flown over by Princess Haya, the Sheik’s sixth wife, to advise on the matter.  A picture of Dr Robinson and Princess Latifa was then published by the royal family in order to show the world that the princess was alive. Princess Haya has since fled the country with her own two children, and is seeking asylum from her husband in the United Kingdom.

We should be cognisant of the hands that feed us, and how they treat others. When a well known and established entity like Trinity partners with another body, it gives said body a degree of respectability. Trinity’s acceptance of funding from the Al Maktoum Foundation implicitly suggests an acceptance of the many social wrongs currently being practiced in Dubai. Among these wrongs are the working conditions of immigrant manual workers, who are routinely underpaid and forced to work under intolerable conditions. These workers are tied to their employers by the country’s visa-entry scheme so even if their working conditions are appalling, they in effect have no option to change jobs.

Free speech is heavily curtailed in Dubai, with the Human Rights Watch noting that all seven of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), not just Dubai, have “launched a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association” since the Arab Spring. Women’s and LGBT rights are non-existent, and while offences like homosexuality and blasphemy remain punishable by death, they are never in practice carried out, unlike in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The UAE is also a leading member of the Saudi Arabian led coalition which is carrying out attacks in Yemen, another state in the region.

“…is it inconceivable to wonder if the attitudes of the donors will influence the ethos of the new school?”

Considering this background, is it inconceivable to wonder if the attitudes of the donors will influence the ethos of the new school? For its part, Trinity denies its ethics will be compromised by the funding, insisting that the new school will be independent. The Al Maktoum Foundation says it will not interfere in the running of the centre, but if the centre’s academics or others in College are highly critical of the Sheikh or his family, is it likely that the Foundation will continue funding the people that are criticising them? When the motion to accept the donation was put before the College Board in 2016, it stipulated it would be a secular school unaffected by the beliefs or attitudes of its donors. 

Regardless of whether the centre is technically independent or not, it is hard to envisage its academics vehemently denouncing problems in Dubai when those very academics are funded by the regime. Their hands are tied either way. If they criticise Dubai, they may have funding cut and they may be open to accusations of hypocrisy for still taking the money. If they don’t criticise Dubai, they will be labelled as the Sheikh’s puppets.

“If these universities, which are vastly wealthier than Trinity, can’t say no to this money, how can Trinity?”

Trinity taking money from Middle Eastern states with questionable human rights records does not make it an outlier in the academic world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have both received large sums of money from the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (MiSK), and according to the Financial Times, the Gulf states have donated $2.2 billion to US universities since 2012. Saudi Arabia funded 110,000 scholarships in the US alone between 2005 and 2015. Oxford University’s Centre for Islamic Studies was funded by the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge’s Centre for Islamic Studies is also funded by the Saudis.

If these universities, which are vastly wealthier than Trinity, can’t say no to this money, how can Trinity? The funding model of higher education in Ireland is broken. Last week it was announced that Trinity has fallen to 164th place in the Times Higher Education Rankings. One basic reason for this is that College is inadequately financed. The government has ruled out increasing fees or introducing a loan system but they have not committed to increasing their contribution to fund the third level sector.

This leaves Trinity in an invidious position. Do we take the money which we know all other top universities are taking or do we take the moral high ground and fall further and further behind everywhere else? Frankly, I believe that until the government overhaul the broken funding system, College must tread carefully between taking funding to sustain itself and trying to maintain an ethical stance as best it can.

Darragh McDonagh

Darragh McDonagh is a staff writer for Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister Law student.