MIT and Harvard reconsidering Saudi ties after Khashoggi murder

Saudi Arabia has paid more than $350m to dozens of US universities since 2011 – and now those institutions are re-examining it amid growing questions from their communities

Last March, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, came to the United States with a mission: to boost his image as a moderniser, liberaliser and reformer at a time when he stood accused of war crimes in Yemen and had recently consolidated power by jailing rivals, critics, rights activists and even family members.

Over the course of his three-week trip he appeared alongside American giants of government, business and entertainment, inking lucrative business deals while letting the celebrity and reputation of people such as Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Dwayne Johnson rub off on him.

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One of his most important stops was Boston, where he crossed the Charles River with his entourage to visit Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two of the world’s most prestigious universities.

On their campuses, the crown prince met with administrators and presided over the signing of fresh agreements with the universities. At the time, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) president Rafael Reif hailed the young authoritarian, saying: “The kingdom is accelerating its progress toward a promising new future.”

Harvard and MIT are anchors of innovation and progress – as well as institutions that champion free speech. To be hosted and lauded by them was a powerful seal of approval for the future king.

But today, Prince Mohammed stands accused of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist in exile who disappeared while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. And now, MIT and Harvard – as well as other schools that have accepted money from the Saudi government over the years – are reconsidering their ties to the kingdom.

In a 15 October letter to MIT faculty, associate provost for international activities Richard Lester wrote that the disappearance of Khashoggi was “of grave concern” and that he had been directed by Reif to conduct a reassessment of MIT’s institute-level engagements with Saudi Arabia.

An MIT spokesperson told the Guardian Lester would not comment further until the review process was completed.

In a statement to the Guardian, a Harvard spokesperson said the university was “following recent events with concern” and “assessing potential implications for existing programs”.

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman looks at a quadrupled robot during his visit to MIT on 24 March.
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman looks at a quadrupled robot during his visit to MIT on 24 March. Photograph: Bandar Al-Jaloud/AFP/Getty Images

Since 2011, Saudi Arabia has paid over $350m to dozens of US universities. While some of the money was in the form of gifts, much of it was to pay tuition for Saudi students at US universities under a scholarship program.

According to an Associated Press analysis of Saudi money paid to US universities, Washington DC’s George Washington University received the most, taking in more than $70m, mostly in tuition. George Mason University, in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, was the second-largest recipient with $63.1m.

While ties between Saudi Arabia and MIT and Harvard are close, the extent and details of the relationships are unclear.

During Prince Mohammed’s visit to Boston, the Saudi government and Saudi-owned companies agreed to fund at least three MIT projects. In one, the state-owned oil company Aramco pledged $25m to a five-year research agreement.

In the US Department of Education’s foreign gift and contract report, Harvard did not specify where exactly the $28m it reported it received from Saudi sources since 2011 came from. However, the university has a deal with the Prince Mohammed’s foundation, MiSK, to send high school-aged Saudi students to Harvard summer sessions. In 2016, the organisation said it had secured 100 of 800 summer session seats at Harvard for Saudi students – 12.5% of all places.

And in 2005, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal donated $20m to the university’s Islamic studies program.

A third Massachusetts university, Babson College, is also re-examining its ties to the kingdom. Babson College had an agreement with the Saudi government to help found the Prince Mohammed bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship, a Saudi institution named after the crown prince. According to financial disclosure documents, the deal would see Babson receive $52m over a 10-year period that began in 2014.

In Illinois, Northwestern University says staff are being asked to reassess their relationships with the kingdom, though defended the “vast majority” of funds received from Saudi Arabia as grants for science research. Northwestern has received more than $14m from Saudi Arabia in recent years.

The moves by MIT and Harvard to reconsider their Saudi ties came amid growing questions from their communities.

At the time of Prince Mohammed’s visit, Harvard and MIT stayed mostly quiet. While visits by high-level dignitaries are not rare, they generally come with some kind of public event. Prince Mohammed’s visit to both campuses occurred behind closed doors, with many faculty and students kept in the dark.

The visit and the apparent veil of secrecy around it sparked anger on both campuses.

Following Prince Mohammed’s visit in March, the editorial board of MIT’s student newspaper the Tech wrote that the university’s silence on Saudi Arabia’s actions “demonstrates a form of hypocrisy in its ethics, in that it is only willing to speak out against injustice when doing so doesn’t interfere with its strategic interests”.

Last week, the Harvard Crimson’s editorial board demanded that the university make its Saudi ties transparent – as well as reconsider them.

“By associating itself with the Saudi regime, Harvard – one of the best universities in the world – runs the risk of legitimising both the authoritarian nature of the regime and the brutal policies it carries out abroad,” they wrote.

While MIT and Harvard were not alone in receiving Saudi money, they were alone in hosting the controversial Saudi royal.

Grif Peterson, an affiliate of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a vocal opponent of the university’s involvement with Prince Mohammed, feels that the Saudi crown prince was already a leader Harvard and MIT should have distanced themselves from when he visited.

“There does come a point when one recognises that any sort of financial relationship legitimises a regime that is implementing massive humanitarian crises, killing a bunch of people,” he said.

On his visit to MIT, the Saudi crown prince was accompanied by Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a former Saudi diplomat who is one of the Saudi nationals accused of carrying out the killing of Khashoggi. In a photo of Prince Mohammed shaking hands with MIT’s president, Mutreb can be seen in the background, looking on.

But while there are calls to end all financial ties, doing so could prove tricky.

Liz Reisberg is a higher education consultant and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. She has also worked as a consultant with the Saudi ministry of education. While she is disturbed by Khashoggi’s killing, she says cutting ties is not simple.

“I think it’s fine and important that MIT and Harvard are inviting faculty to engage in a conversation about the relationship with the Saudis. But where do we stop? if you start to reconsider your relationship with the Saudis, are you going to consider China? Russia? Turkey? Israel? ” she said.

For many American universities, completely cutting off ties with Saudi Arabia would mean Saudi students on government-funded scholarships would stop coming.

Even criticism of the Saudi government’s actions could lead to retribution: Riyadh ordered Saudi students studying in Canada to return home after the country’s foreign minister called for the release of activists jailed by the kingdom.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said studying abroad allows Saudi students to be exposed to ideas they might not otherwise know if they remained in Saudi Arabia, where free speech is suppressed.

“The Saudi government presumably anticipates that students will come back with a set of professional skills that will enable them to move into technocratic positions that will then be part of that transformation,” he said. “It of course ignores perhaps the social skills that they may also come back with, a sense of thinking for themselves and being creative and inquiring. Those are the aspects that the Saudi government might not want to encourage back home.”

In response to an editorial in MIT’s student newspaper the Tech in April, MIT’s president Reif addressed the “serious, difficult questions” the university must face when forming relationships. But he ultimately defended the university’s relationships with Saudi Arabia.

“We could instead choose a strategy of refusing to engage,” he wrote. “In most instances, however, it appears to us that our not engaging neither creates nor encourages significant positive change.”


Josh Wood in Boston, Massachusetts

The GuardianTramp

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