A debate has been raging within American universities over the tens of millions of dollars they receive from Saudi Arabia. Why do Gulf monarchies lavish major academic institutions with so much money and what do they get in return? This question became a pressing concern following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Universities like Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) were faced with a moral challenge: would they continue to accept donations and grants from a kingdom which the UN and US intelligence believes is responsible for the brutal murder.
Author, Michael Sokolove, set-out to probe deeper into this issue by asking “why is there so much Saudi money in American universities?” This debate, according to writer for the New York Times Magazine, “echoes the movement a generation ago that pushed universities to divest from apartheid-era South Africa, and more recently, calls from some quarters for schools to disassociate from Israel in protest of its occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
When the values of universities collide with the actions of authoritarian regimes and state leaders who are in violation of international law, the result can be explosive. Faculty members and students, says Sokolove, “want universities to reflect their own sense of moral clarity and outrage” however “university administrators, in almost all cases, resist”.
MIT became the centre of this tension even before the murder of Khashoggi. During a visit to the university by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, known as MBS, in 2017 as part of his tour of the US meeting with business heads and politicians, students joined in rallies to protest the visit of the kingdom’s de-facto ruler.
Thirty-five-year-old PHD student Shireen Al-Adeimi, who was born in Yemen, joined the protest. “The man MIT is hosting has created the worst humanitarian crisis on earth. Simply put, the man MIT is hosting is a war criminal, and he should be punished for his crimes and not welcomed here,” Al-Adeimi said during the protest. She took her complaint to the university president by delivering a petition with some 4,000 names asking him to cancel the visit of MBS. MIT’s management were unmoved and the following morning, MBS spent several hours at the university’s Media Lab.
According to Sokolove the Saudis signed three contracts that day, for a total of $23 million, two of them to extend existing research projects with MIT. The other one was for a new initiative between the university and Sabic, a Saudi state-owned petrochemical company, for research into more efficient refining of natural gas.
About $650 million is said to have been directed to American universities by Riyadh from 2012 to 2018. Further money comes in the form of tuition payments estimated to be over $1 billion a year from the 44,000 Saudi students enrolled across the US. In return for its largesse the kingdom gets “access to the brain trust of America’s top academic institutions” and an opportunity to grow its soft-power around the globe.
Those keen on maintaining their bond with Riyadh speak of the role American universities play in liberalising the kingdom. One university described how its programmes help to educate Saudi law-enforcement officers and told Sokolove that its institution had created a curriculum based on American constitutional law that would make Saudi students less likely to be involved in any activities like rounding up, torturing or executing dissidents. The president of the university said: “We are helping implement the kind of change that will instil in citizens there the kind of values that would cause them to resist and oppose such horrible acts.”
Critics are unconvinced and say that the universities are selling their good names. Sally Haslanger, an MIT philosophy professor, said: “M.I.T.’s name, integrity, credibility and scientific excellence have power … and we have used it to burnish the reputation of Mohammed Bin Salman and his regime.”
The murder of Khashoggi presented a major challenge. With the finger being pointed at the crown prince for the brutal murder MIT’s management team mulled over rejecting or returning the funds. Richard Lester, who oversees the school’s partnerships with foreign entities acknowledged an uncomfortable fact: “One of those individuals now known to have played a leading role in Mr. Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul had been part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s entourage during the latter’s visit to the M.I.T. campus,” he wrote, referring to Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a Saudi intelligence officer. “This individual had engaged with members of the M.I.T. community at that time — an unwelcome and unsettling intrusion into our space, even though evident only in retrospect.”
Despite this admission, Lester recommended MIT to continue its work with the Saudis. The university is said to have given faculty members the option of ending their collaboration with Saudi institution. Rafael Reif University’s president accepted Lester’s recommendations and made a distinction between the Saudi government and the Saudi citizens that work with MIT. In the end, MIT severed its connection with only one Saudi entity: MiSK, a personal foundation of MBS.
The decision did not please everyone. Jonathan King who is the editorial board chairman of MIT’s faculty newsletter criticised the decision saying: “He [Lester] could have decided that we don’t have to be in bed with murderers and a government that imprisons its women activists. But he insisted on keeping the relationship. I don’t get it. Why would M.I.T. want to sully its national and international reputation for chump change?”