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MIT report recommends against cutting research ties with Saudi Arabia

By David Schwartz
Published: December 11th, 2018

An MIT review of the school’s ties to Saudi Arabia has concluded that it should not break with the kingdom following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

MIT has no “compelling case” to cut ties with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the killing, which has drawn international outrage, but it is unlikely to pursue more work in the kingdom, according a to a report released by the school last week.

University President L. Rafael Reif asked Associate Provost Lester in October to conduct a reassessment of MIT’s engagements with Saudi Arabia following the murder. MIT is one of many U.S. universities that accept funding from the Saudi government and industry, but it has stood out for its close relationship with the country’s national oil company and other government-owned institutions.

Lester criticized Saudi Arabia’s role in the killing, along with its “repressive policies” in other areas, but he said none of the institutions MIT works with had any role in Khashoggi’s death. Cutting ties would curb important research, he said, but would have little or no impact on the Saudi regime’s policies or practices.

“These organizations are supporting important research and activities at MIT on terms that honor our principles and comply with our policies,” he said in the report. “They are also providing critical resources to support the education of outstanding Saudi students and women scientists and engineers, who will surely be in the vanguard of social change in that country.”

Lester added, however, that the killing will likely scuttle any expansion of the school’s work in Saudi Arabia, which some at MIT felt could help steer the kingdom toward more progressive policies. “The Khashoggi murder has deflated many of those hopes,” Lester wrote.

The report also revealed what Lester called a “disturbing” connection between the Khashoggi murder and a campus visit made by Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March, when his entourage included Maher Mutreb, who was later identified by the U.S. government as one of 17 Saudis who organized and carried out the killing. “This individual had engaged with members of the MIT community at that time — an unwelcome and unsettling intrusion into our space, even though evident only in retrospect,” Lester wrote.

The report was based on input from students, faculty and alumni, along with outside experts on Saudi Arabia. It now goes to President Reif, who will make a final decision on whether to maintain ties to the kingdom.

Despite the recommendation, Lester noted that individual researchers who want to back out of projects with the kingdom can do so, and the school will help arrange it without disrupting the work.

The report didn’t detail how much MIT receives from Saudi sources, but it said 52% has covered “sponsored research” over the last three years. Research deals have primarily involved state-owned institutions like oil giant Saudi Aramco and SABIC, a national chemical company, as well as the research center King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST). Another 44% of the Saudi support received by the school came in the form of philanthropic giving. 

Several other schools also defended their work with the country, including the University of California, Berkeley, which has a $6 million contract to develop nanomaterials that can be used to support renewable energy.

In an interview with the MIT student newspaper The Tech, Lester said: “We’ve had for many years — decades even — collaborations with good people in Saudi Arabia who are trying to do good things. … What this report says is that we should not walk away from these people despite the actions of people in their government.”

He pointed out the positive contributions of both the research sponsorships and the philanthropic gifts. Private and corporate gifts from Saudi sources have supported work to alleviate poverty, make food and water more securely available, educate marginalized populations, and improve public health. Gifts have also has also allowed MIT to grow the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship Program for Saudi Arabian Women. The program has been supported by gifts from Saudi Aramco and KACST.

 “The argument for being open to continued engagement is based on a weighing of benefits and costs and risks,” Lester told MIT News. “The benefits are to MIT, to our faculty, to our students, and also potentially to Saudi society and even the global community — for example, a number of the research projects MIT is conducting with Saudi support are related to water and energy, with the ultimate goal of protecting the environment.”

Still, some on campus are urging MIT to cut its ties with the Saudis. A letter signed by more than 20 political science graduate students addressed to President Reif stated: “We recognize that the funding MIT receives from Saudi Arabia has been channeled towards serious and noble research projects here at MIT. We understand that if MIT were to speak out against human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, there may be financial retaliation. However, a renowned institution like MIT must not be threatened into silence.”

Sources: The Tech, U.S. News & World Report and MIT News

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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