I read with great interest the letter published in the Times’ 7.31.19 issue with regard to “Cornell’s Relationship with Qatar.” In general, I’m in agreement with the assertion by Mr. Hanna and the “People’s Organizing Collective at Cornell University” that the relationship between Cornell, Weill Cornell Medical College and the Qatar Foundation bears continuing scrutiny mainly because of the well-documented abuses of migrant laborers in that country. These are the people who are literally building Qatar and its capital city, Doha, as well as the Education City campus where Weill Cornell, among numerous other American universities, has its medical school.
I taught writing in the pre-med program of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar from 2005 to 2009, near the beginning of that joint collaboration project to educate medical doctors abroad in the American system. I have since remained in close contact with former colleagues and I keep abreast of a wide variety of topics as I complete a memoir of my years in Qatar and my experience of life in the Gulf Arab World.
I feel that I must, however, take some issue with some of Mr. Hanna’s inflammatory rhetoric and loose, unsupported allegations about the Weill Cornell project, Qatar itself, and the royal family, whose monarchy, under Islamic law, has sponsored myriad progressive enterprises. Some of Mr. Hanna’s assertions approach a degree of libel, and I won’t repeat them, even though I do concur that the government, despite its stated best intentions, ought to be doing more to protect the rights and lives of the many underpaid and overworked people who have served the astounding developments in Qatar over the past 30 years.
Cornell, so far as I know, subcontracts the unskilled laborers who work at the WCM-Q project, whether they be security guards, custodians, cafeteria workers, or “tea servers.” It might be since I left that there are now more people including research assistants and lab technicians who are employed directly by Cornell, and if so, their conditions ought to be, as Mr. Hanna says, commensurate with their peers on the Ithaca and NYC campuses. The most egregious exploitation of the labor force in the country, however, is of construction workers, and unfortunately, in Education City there have been fatal accidents, possibly as a result of the lack of safety protocols. These laborers are predominantly uneducated, unemployed, impoverished young men from places in Nepal, Pakistan and India, whose contracts are with non-Qatari corporations licensed by the government. Throughout the entire region, and for a long time, this kafala system has been used to recruit such workers from other countries. Its offenses have been widely documented by human rights organizations—and it has proven terribly intractable so far to remediation.
Things might have changed since I lived in Doha, but all of us who taught at Weill Cornell in my time were acutely aware of the compromises we were making on a daily basis in order to be there: we’d come to help educate future doctors and to represent the educational values of Cornell and of the United States in a region of the world where goodwill toward the USA is not necessarily to be expected, and we thought this was a good thing, even a courageous thing to do, especially given the proximity of the Iraq War and the US posture toward Iran. I weighed the situation in terms of my own wish to share something of America, more particularly of Ithaca, with the Arab and Islamic World. I compromised, in other words, and did my best to bring the values of Western humanism not only to my future doctors, but also to whomever of the working classes I encountered in that stratified society. My impressions of the ruling family engendered a high sense of esteem in particular for the wife of the Emir at that time, the visionary Sheikha Moza, the force behind the Education City project.
As I learned early on, in the Arab World, in general, “things come from above,” and furthermore, what the ruling elites do among themselves is quite opaque to foreigners, even those with whom they have entered into business partnerships. Therefore, as Mr. Hanna implies, lobbying for positive changes in labor practices whether with the Qatari government or with Cornell ought to be directed to the people at the top. However, disparaging them with unproven allegations is uncalled for and counterproductive. Whether we’re talking about Qatar—quite progressive and liberal minded by Gulf standards—or Saudi, or the UAE, tribal thinking persists in these cultures and it often includes ages old biases, rivalries, and grudges outsiders can hardly comprehend. I caution Mr. Hanna and others against making well intentioned but facile statements about a lack of transparency that impedes Western values in such cultures.
I can understand that students on the Ithaca campus would want to know where and how their tuition dollars are being spent. Certain issues need to be pressed with Cornell, whatever the Federal Department of Education investigates regarding financial transactions between Cornell and the government of Qatar, which has subsidized Cornell’s operations in the country. However, Mr. Hanna’s most inflammatory remarks are vague and unsupported. I don’t claim to be an expert on my alma mater and former employer’s actions, nor on the arrangement two Cornell Presidents engineered more than 15 years ago with the government of Qatar, but I do believe that the school’s presence there has been overwhelmingly a good thing. Of course, good things might be made even better.