By Steven Spearie
When former President Jimmy Carter appeared in Jacksonville last month to help launch the “Pathways to Peace” initiative at Illinois College, few outside the campus community knew the man who introduced the 39th president to an overflow crowd at the Bruner Fitness and Recreation Center.
Khalaf Ahmad al Habtoor, a United Arab Emirates businessman and multibillionaire, has his name affixed to several projects at Illinois College, the most recent being a state-of-the-art archives facility in Schewe Library, which he helped dedicate the day before Carter’s speech.
A 2007 gift of $1.3 million helped support the renovation of Whipple Hall, housing the Khalaf al Habtoor Leadership Center and a museum that re-creates the congressional office of Paul Findley, the 11-term U.S. representative, Jacksonville native and IC alumnus.
It is through Findley that al Habtoor, who made his fortune in construction before fanning out to real estate development, luxury hotels and publishing, has forged a connection with Illinois College. In 2010, al Habtoor, 65, received an honorary doctorate from the college as well as honorary membership in the Phi Alpha Literary Society.
“It’s been a very durable relationship,” said Findley, 93, who met al Habtoor in Dubai in 1989. “(At that time), al Habtoor was already moving up the ladder pretty well.”
If al Habtoor’s name means little to people in central Illinois, it’s different on the world stage. He’s known to the jet set — royalty, business moguls, supermodels and politicians — but balances that lifestyle with an unflagging work schedule and is a deeply religious Muslim.
He isn’t publicity-shy, either, with a recent autobiography checking in at more than 500 pages. (Al Habtoor didn’t follow up on an interview request from The State Journal-Register.)
Al Habtoor’s ascension from dire poverty mirrors the rise of the UAE, for which he’s become an unofficial ambassador. His businesses, under the umbrella of the Al Habtoor Group that he chairs, employ about 40,000 people, according to numerous sources.
Early last year, al Habtoor established his own foundation, using it to promote relief assistance, scientific and educational research, and interreligious dialogue. In a speech in New York before his visit to Jacksonville, al Habtoor promoted a global poverty tax, suggesting that governments pledge an annual percentage to a newly created independent body with the sole purpose of reducing poverty.
But al Habtoor offers another side.
His speeches and frank opinion pieces have generated their share of headlines.
Under President Barack Obama, he has said, the U.S. has “bled geopolitical influence,” and al Habtoor calls the president’s efforts toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement “a joke.” During Russia’s crackdown on Ukraine, al Habtoor wrote that he favored President Vladimir Putin’s “leadership capabilities,” though he decried his politics.
Al Habtoor has defended the UAE’s sometimes draconian laws — flogging and stoning are still legal punishments there — and criticized Western countries that are full of “homeless people living under bridges, tunnels and train stations” for pushing democratic ideas on the UAE.
“Unlike other entrepreneurs in Dubai, (al Habtoor) has spoken out plainly, and I think that’s great,” Findley said.
Seen as ‘benefactor’
Al Habtoor’s outspokenness about the Palestinian situation in the Middle East has also endeared him to Findley. While he’s distanced himself from the Palestinians’ Hamas leadership and other groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, al Habtoor, at a question-and-answer session following Carter’s speech in Jacksonville, called this summer’s uprising in Gaza “a massacre” against Palestinian civilians.
Al Habtoor and Findley are components — along with the Atlanta-based Carter Center — of “Pathways to Peace,” a seminar-style approach that brings together select faculty members and students at Illinois College to look at models used to resolve ethnic, cultural and religious conflicts that may be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The initiative envisions some faculty and students traveling to the Middle East, paid for by al Habtoor’s foundation, at the conclusion of the seminar, which college officials hope to see as an ongoing project.
As for other contributions al Habtoor has made to Illinois College and where he ranks among donors, a spokesperson said the college wasn’t at liberty to release that information, citing “donor confidentiality.”
Another official, not from Illinois College but familiar with private colleges and universities, confirmed that, unlike public institutions, private colleges have no obligations to release donor information.
College President Barbara Farley said she’s heard gratitude for al Habtoor’s generosity from different sectors of the campus.
“He’s seen as a tremendous benefactor at Illinois College, and he has a great interest in the college’s success and students’ success,” Farley said. “He wants to help the profile of Illinois College nationally and internationally.”
No ‘pet project’
Karen Dean’s eyes light up when she talks about how “Pathways to Peace” fits into Illinois College’s mission.
The political science professor and director of the Al Habtoor Leadership Center points out that the campus was one of the centers of the abolitionist movement of the mid-19th century, led by Edward Beecher, the college’s first president and brother of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
“ ‘Pathways to Peace’ is a part of us,” Dean said. “It goes to the heart of who we are as a college.”
It’s also an opportunity for students and faculty members who come from a number of disciplines to learn together, she said. The college soon will be screening students for the program.
There’s one thing that “Pathways to Peace” isn’t, Dean said.
“This is (not anyone’s) pet project,” she said. “There’s no one side to this issue, and we will not pursue any question that way.”
Kristi Barnwell, an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois Springfield, has taught about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to freshmen and upper-level students. Those students often initially feel overwhelmed by the material, but once they get a grasp on it, they see what is a layered problem, Barnwell said.
“I try to set the conflict in a regional context as well as an international context,” she said. “I want them to know why other countries have different relationships with (Palestine and Israel).
“My suggestion to (Illinois College) students and professors is not to take an American-centric or Western-centric approach to the conflict, but to view it from multiple perspectives so they can understand more fully the obstacles in the way of creating peace.”
Area Jewish leaders caution that, even on the Israeli side, there are a panoply of voices that seminar leaders need to take into consideration.
“We hope that the curriculum, faculty, speakers, projects and site visits will meet the highest standards of academic rigor, integrity and balance,” said Josephine Gon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Springfield. “We further hope that it will not become a vehicle for hidden agendas and indoctrination of a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Added Natalie Silverman, who chairs the Jewish Community Relations Council: “We hope that ‘Pathways to Peace’ will be true to its name and study not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but all areas of conflict in the Middle East: Syria, the Islamic State and Iraq, Iran, the Sunni-Shiite clash, border disputes in other Gulf States, and the persecution of Christians, to name a few.”
“We’re not going to create peace (in the Middle East) out of this seminar, but we can make steps and we can learn to think differently,” said Dean, the Al Habtoor Leadership Center’s director. “These questions might unlock a way to look at this from a fresh set of eyes.”
Illinois College looks a lot different than it has in years past.
Through the Lexington, Virginia-based Hope Fund, five Palestinian students — including two current students — have made their way to Jacksonville over the last several years, changing some perceptions along the way, Findley said.
“Students here put a good face on Islam,” the former congressman said.
In and out of office, Findley has sought a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said Carter’s recent speech, in part calling for the suspension of $3 billion worth of U.S. aid to Israel until peace is negotiated, “gave me a lift.”
Findley said al Habtoor’s philanthropy has been diverse, endowing chairs at universities in the UAE as well as financially supporting the American University in Cairo and establishing a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School.
“He’s always searching for something additional he can do, like supporting ‘Pathways to Peace,’ which is a novel idea,” said Findley, whose grandson, Andrew Findley, a visiting assistant professor of art history and archaeology at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, wrote the initial proposal.
Al Habtoor, Paul Findley added, “never made any demands on me.”
“He’s never tried to influence me at all in what I say or write,” Findley said. “He’s a good man who makes a lot of money and wants to do good things internationally. He likes to be remembered for good things. Jacksonville probably has a bunch of millionaires, but few spend (their money wisely.)”
A Lincoln man
An Illinois College spokesman said al Habtoor has visited the campus four times in the last five years. (Al Habtoor prefers staying at the Crowne Plaza Springfield when he’s in the area.) In 2010, al Habtoor toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum — Lincoln is a personal hero of his — and met with then-Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin.
While al Habtoor cheerleads for his country, watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch have chided the UAE for its systematic torture methods and crackdowns on freedom of expression.
A Human Rights Watch spokesman in New York said that while there’s nothing to tie the Al Habtoor Group to direct abuses, it is one of the most influential companies in a country where a labor system facilitates human trafficking and forced labor.
“The issue is not, Can you tie any one company to human rights abuses?” Nicholas McGeehan said. “The issue is more, Can any individual company demonstrate that it is operating ethically in sectors beset by systematic exploitation?”
Al Habtoor continues to put his stamp on the UAE, launching the ambitious Al Habtoor City project in 2013 with three luxury hotels, penthouse apartments and a theater with a $3 billion price tag. Findley said al Habtoor has just as importantly “built a bridge of understanding between the East and the West.”
Farley, the Illinois College president, said “Pathways to Peace,” Carter’s visit to the campus and the school’s connection with the Carter Center wouldn’t have been possible without al Habtoor’s generosity.
“This is an extraordinary event in Illinois College’s history,” she said.
Al Habtoor’s influence on Illinois College
* 2007 — Donated $1.3 million for creation of Khalaf al Habtoor Leadership Center, renovation of Whipple Hall and endowment funds to support programs of the center (including a lecture series and essay contest). Focal point of the center was gift of papers, personal items and Abraham Lincoln artifacts acquired by former U.S. Rep. Paul Findley of Jacksonville.
* 2010 — Awarded honorary doctorate of humane letters at spring commencement at which he was keynote speaker. Given honorary membership in Phi Alpha Literary Society. Announced intention to sponsor annual essay contest for students with awards of a year’s tuition or a free trip to Dubai as his guest and cash prizes for the top three winning essays.
* 2010-14 — During five-year span, al Habtoor visited campus four times. Both former IC President Axel Steuer and current President Barbara Farley made trips to visit al Habtoor in the United Arab Emirates.
* 2014 — Dedicated Khalaf al Habtoor Archives (formerly known as Iver F. Yeager Special Collections and Illinois College Archives) in Schewe Library with a gift of $600,000. In addition to the state-of-the-art archives, it includes a visitors room and work spaces, wide-screen televisions and throw projectors, and an office for an archivist. Introduced former President Jimmy Carter at Phi Alpha lecture, which included the launch of the “Pathways to Peace” seminar. Pledged to pay travel and expenses for faculty members and students traveling to Middle East for a briefing about the seminar. (In a November interview with the Huffington Post, al Habtoor said the seminar is “fully sponsored” by his personal foundation.)
About Illinois College
Founded: 1829 (second college founded in Illinois)
Enrollment: About 1,000
Affiliation: United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Famous alumni: William Jennings Bryan (three-time U.S. presidential candidate), Richard Yates (Illinois governor), Ryan Tanner (Tony Award-winning producer), Charlotte Thompson Reid (U.S. congresswoman and radio personality), Jacob Tucker (Harlem Globetrotter).
World according to Khalaf al Habtoor
* “I believe in honesty, truth and always thinking ahead.” (as told to Gulf Business)
* “(Paul Findley and I) both believe that education is the foundation for a better future, allowing the children of tomorrow to learn from mistakes made in the past, and teaching that we should not discriminate based on race, color or religion.” (2010 commencement speech at Illinois College)
* “It is a realistic attempt to find a solution for an ongoing conflict that affects the Middle East and the West.” (On “Pathways to Peace” at Illinois College, 2014)
* “I am living proof that you can be whatever you want to be.” (2010 commencement speech at Illinois College)
* “It is time the West realizes we don’t need to be picked on for not following Western-style policies that quite frankly don’t seem to be working for the West that well, either.” (2014 speech at C3 Summit, New York City)
* “Charity isn’t for show. When God gives to you, you have to give to the people.” (as told to Philanthropy Age)
* “We Arabs love to complain that we are misunderstood by Americans and Europeans, but unless we are prepared to open up, we will never be able to shake off false negative stereotypes. We’re not used to baring our souls in public.” (as told to National UAE)
Source: The State Journal-Register
Correspondent: Steven Spearie