A pediatric medical research facility funded by a financial gift from the United Arab Emirates will open next year at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center site in the District, officials announced Tuesday.
The $190 million campus will be supported by $30 million from the UAE — a gift that comes 10 years after the Arab nation gave $150 million to build the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, named for the nation’s founding father, a few miles away at Children’s National.
Kurt Newman, president and chief executive of Children’s National, said the campus will be built in a region he called the “sweet spot of innovation,” noting the proximity of the National Institutes of Health, the University of Maryland and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, among other institutions in the Washington area.
“This moves us down the line in a big way,” he said. “It’s an investment with a trusted partner.”
The UAE funding comes almost a decade after the Walter Reed Army Medical Center closed its D.C. location and moved to Bethesda, making way for massive redevelopment of the 66-acre site. The closure came after a 2007 Washington Post investigation found substandard living conditions for wounded troops in outpatient care.
Newman said Children’s National secured 12 acres from the Army and will host researchers and companies focused on pediatric health.
“It really does feel like hallowed ground,” he said. “I can’t wait to get started.”
The UAE gift was announced the same day Children’s National said it would partner with Johnson & Johnson to build a 32,000-square-foot facility on the new campus called JLabs @ Washington, DC. In a collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, JLabs will focus on medical responses to chemical, biological and nuclear threats, as well as infectious diseases.
The $30 million UAE donation comes at a time when representatives of foreign governments bearing gifts are sometimes greeted with suspicion.
Six months ago, as the nation grappled with Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the slaying of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate brought scrutiny to the Saudi $27 million influence machine — the amount it spent on U.S. lobbying in 2017, according to Justice Department filings. The UAE spent more than $21 million on lobbying that year.
UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said in an interview that the donation shouldn’t be viewed as a lobbying effort.
“If you just look at it as, ‘Oh, you’re doing it for a tactical political reason,’ you would miss the point of what we’re doing,” he said. “You’d miss the point of who we are.”
Otaiba called the donation part of the evolution of a decade-long relationship between his nation and Children’s National, saying that up to 150 Emirati children are treated at the hospital each year.
He also pointed to the UAE’s philanthropy elsewhere in the United States, including a $50 million gift to Johns Hopkins last year for a stroke research institute.
“The relationship exists,” he said. “These guys have been looking after us — after our kids — forever.”
Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank, said the gift “fits into” Otaiba’s attempts to raise the UAE’s profile since his arrival in Washington a decade ago. (The UAE is also a CSIS donor.)
“They’re certainly interested in being visible in Washington philanthropy,” he said. “But I’m not sure how unique that is.”
David Callahan, founder and editor of the website Inside Philanthropy, which seeks to make charitable giving more transparent, said an increase in the number of billionaires around the world has led to more foreign philanthropy in the United States in recent years.