Saudi partnerships too valuable to give up – MIT report

Last March the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) welcomed Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, to its campus. Nearby, and captured in a photograph of the occasion, was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, reportedly an intelligence officer who is often seen in the prince’s company.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Months later Mutreb was in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, allegedly helping oversee the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi exile and Washington Post columnist, according to accounts from the news media and Turkish and United States officials. He is now one of 17 Saudi officials under sanction by the US government.

The ‘disturbing’ visit to the MIT campus is one of many facts laid out in a new report by Richard K Lester, MIT’s associate provost for international activities, that seeks to re-examine the university’s relationship with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing.

But Lester, despite acknowledging that taking money from agencies affiliated with the Saudi government raises ethical issues, ended up recommending that MIT not sever those ties.

In short, Lester reasoned, no evidence has surfaced tying any of the organisations that MIT deals with – the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, for example – to the assassination. And, he wrote, cutting ties with them would probably do little to make Saudi Arabia less repressive.

“On the positive side,” he concluded, “these organisations are supporting important research and activities at MIT on terms that honour our principles and comply with our policies.”

MIT is just one of many colleges with financial ties to Saudi Arabia, but it was among the first to publicly re-examine its Saudi partnerships in October, when L Rafael Reif, its president, asked Lester to compile a report. MIT released Lester’s preliminary findings on 6 December.

The report provides an uncommonly candid argument in favour of maintaining ties with an autocratic state caught at the centre of an international furor. And it may dismay activists who have pressed MIT and other colleges to forgo the millions they reap from the regime and its affiliates.

The Khashoggi crisis broke out as MIT was considering a ‘significant expansion’ of its relationships with Saudi Arabia, according to the report. Despite the country’s illiberal domestic policies and involvement in the Yemeni civil war, MIT officials hoped to be a part of what they saw as the kingdom’s steps toward reform. “The Khashoggi murder has deflated many of those hopes,” Lester wrote.

Nevertheless, he recommended maintaining MIT’s ties to the kingdom. Saudi donors, state agencies, companies and state-owned enterprises have spent millions of dollars to sponsor research, scholarships and academic programmes.

Saudi Aramco, for instance, the largest Saudi funder of MIT’s sponsored research, has contributed about US$5 million to MIT per year for the past five years, according to an interview Lester gave to The Tech, the student newspaper.

Just over half of that overall Saudi spending in the past three years, from Saudi agencies, state-owned enterprises and universities, has funded research projects at MIT, according to the report. Lester emphasised that donors do not control the research they fund.

Gifts from Saudi donors accounted for 44% of overall spending, funding scholarships, fellowships and programmes. Many of those gifts came from Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, a Saudi businessman and MIT alumnus who has donated US$73 million to the college over the past decade, according to the Associated Press.

The rest came from a smattering of affiliations in MIT’s corporate relations programme, its executive education programmes, and its alumni club in Saudi Arabia.

‘Difficult judgments’

Lester’s report broadly echoes the reasoning that Reif offered to critics earlier this year. The most basic standards for establishing partnerships – keeping research independent and students safe, for example – aren’t enough to determine which partnerships to actually pursue, Lester wrote.

Some activities could bring “significant societal benefits”, he wrote. “Yet the partners and sponsors of these activities may simultaneously exhibit values in other domains that our institute does not share, or they may conduct other activities whose methods or goals are actively opposed by members of the MIT community.”

“Difficult judgments balancing the benefits, costs and potential risks to MIT’s reputation often need to be made,” the report continues. “Whatever the conclusion, it is unlikely that all members of the MIT community will agree with it.”

That much is clear. If MIT was among the first to comment on the Khashoggi crisis, that was partly because students and others in the MIT community had put sustained pressure on the administration since the prince’s March visit, said Lukas Wolters, a doctoral student in political science.

Wolters was disappointed at the report’s recommendations, he said, but not surprised. He was one of more than 20 political science graduate students who in October wrote an op-ed urging MIT to end its relationships with the Saudi government.

“The values that they sort of ignored in this report, in part, are respect for human individuality, for human dignity,” Wolters said. While hopes of furthering science “might align” with Saudi partnerships, he said, those core issues of non-discrimination and individual human rights “are incredibly at odds with collaborating with Saudi Arabia”.

“The recommendations are basically ‘Let’s do nothing’,” Wolters said. Where the report appears to make the greatest concession – recommending that the college avoid future “large overseas engagements that require the physical presence” of many people from MIT over time – seems to be in fact a practical acknowledgment that those people wouldn’t be safe there, Wolters said.

MIT did not respond to requests for an interview on Thursday.

Two professors withdraw

Most difficult to consider, the report suggested, are MIT’s relationships with state agencies and state-owned enterprises like Saudi Aramco, the oil giant. While those organisations are part of a government that has been ‘implicated’ in Khashoggi’s murder, as well as repressive domestic policies and the war in Yemen, they don’t appear directly linked to those government actions, Lester wrote. He recommended maintaining ties.

Faculty members leading Saudi-sponsored projects may still decide for themselves whether to remain affiliated, Lester added.

The report’s recommendations largely align with other colleges’ decisions to preserve most agreements already underway and to withdraw from or reconsider only some projects that have not yet begun.

In one case at MIT, after Khashoggi’s disappearance came to light, two faculty members withdrew as advisers to NEOM, the kingdom’s half-trillion-dollar smart-city project.

That project’s advisory board had included Ernest J Moniz, a former US secretary of energy and a professor emeritus and special adviser to the MIT president, and Carlo Ratti, an urban planning professor who directs MIT’s SENSEable City Lab. Moniz was among the first public figures to cut ties with a Saudi project in October. Ratti followed later.

MIT’s report is open for comment until 15 January, when it will be forwarded to President Reif for a final decision.

Follow Steven Johnson on Twitter at @stetyjohn, or email him at steve.johnson@chronicle.com.