The Qatar Foundation plans to open a center dedicated to teaching Arab culture and the Arabic language to American pupils as part of a massive development project in Washington that Doha is helping finance.
The first phase of CityCenterDC, one of the largest construction projects in the United States, is being financed by $622 million from the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Co, which is part of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority.
While other sovereign investors, many from the GCC, have been buying prime property in Washington since 2010, Qatar plans to take an active role in its investments and “do what no other Arab country has done”, said Maggie Mitchell Salem, the executive director of the Qatar Foundation, which describes itself as an apolitical education non-profit.
She said the foundation is “making a serious investment in Arabic language” for US pupils of all ages, giving them a “connection to Qatar and focusing on Arab language and culture”.
“The long-term goal is to change the perception that exists for many Americans when they think about the Arab world,” Ms Salem said.
The foundation has released few details, but she said the 1,400-square-metre cultural center, called Al Bayt, or “home” in Arabic, will not feature “old stuff behind glass” but be a “state of the art, interactive experience” that will immerse students in Qatari culture “without leaving the states”.
Parts of the center, expected to be open early next year, will be modeled on a traditional Qatari home. “When you get people into someone’s living room, you have a good chance of connecting, and learning and listening, in a way you don’t when you’re trying to talk at people,” Ms Salem said.
Along with the center, the Qatar Foundation will launch a website aimed to be a “one-stop shop for anyone interested in learning or teaching Arabic”, Ms Salem said. The foundation has spent at least $4.5m this year on support for Arabic language classes in US schools, teacher training and curriculum development.
Familiarity with Arabic is a key part of the foundation’s long-term goal of changing negative perceptions of the Arab world, Ms Salem said, and the foundation saw an opportunity when US federal funding for language programs was slashed in 2009 during the economic crisis.
“It gave us an opening to have a conversation with programs that were in existence but needed assistance to continue.”
The 10-acre, $950m CityCenterDC development is built on the site of the city’s former convention center, and will feature some of the most expensive condominiums in the city as well as upscale shopping and restaurants.
Its first phase, expected to be completed in the spring, will have six buildings of offices and apartments.
The global recession spurred investment in high-value property in the US, seen as stable and offering high returns for sovereign wealth funds.
Beginning in 2010, funds from the GCC began looking for prime property investments in the US capital, with Qatar and the Kuwait Investment Authority in 2011 buying a majority stake in another huge property in Washington, the Rosslyn office portfolio.
The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is the principal investor in the $550m Marriott Marquis hotel, another of capital’s largest construction projects.
While having major stakes in the Washington property market “may give them a marginal political, policy-related benefit”, according to Jacob Kierkegaard, the head of the advanced economies practice at Rhodium Group, a New York-based economic research firm. “Sovereign wealth funds want to avoid any political fallout from investing in other sectors, and real estate is really a politically neutral asset class.”
The controversy over the Dubai Port World’s attempt to buy a number of US ports in 2006, which was blocked by Congress, looms large, Mr Kierkegaard said.
While the Qatar Foundation says it is working to change the negative perceptions that led to the DP World debacle, its active role in Qatar’s premier Washington property investment may leave it vulnerable to political attacks from the Islamophobic right in the US.
CityCenterDC will be Sharia compliant, which prevents leases to interest-earning banks or bars. Executives at Hines, the company managing the development, told the Washington Post that Sharia-compliance issues will have little effect on the project.