MIT Report Recommends Keeping Saudi Relationships

Critics of the university's Saudi ties say they are disappointed but not giving up.

December 7, 2018
Bandar Algaloud / Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's crown prince meets MIT's president

A review of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s collaborations with Saudi Arabia recommends continuing the university’s relationships with individuals and entities in the kingdom despite concerns about the government’s record of human rights abuses and its role in the war in Yemen that has put millions of people at risk of starvation.

The review, which was conducted by MIT’s associate vice provost for international activities following the killing of the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, recommends against terminating any of MIT’s relationships with private Saudi donors, a Saudi government research agency and Saudi state-owned companies.

An eight-page preliminary report provides a summary of MIT’s Saudi links, including funding from the Saudi government and state-owned companies for sponsored research in fields like energy and water management and private and corporate gifts from Saudi sources. The report does not give an overall dollar figure for Saudi-sourced gifts and sponsored research contracts, but a federal database shows that MIT has reported receiving more than $77 million in gifts and contracts from Saudi sources over the past six years.

“The bottom line of my judgment was that we have and have had for some considerable period of time activities, collaborations with people from the kingdom, good people from the kingdom who have aspirations to do good things in the kingdom, and those good things are embodied in the research projects and research collaborations that we’re carrying out,” Richard K. Lester, the associate vice provost for international activities, said in an interview.

“These are people, we know them, we’ve known these folks for some considerable period of time, maybe even decades, who are trying to modernize the country. I’d say the bottom line of my judgment was we’re not going to walk away from these people. We’re not going to cut and run from these people even despite the atrocious actions that have been taken by the leadership of the country.”

MIT’s links to Saudi Arabia have been under scrutiny since the spring, when the university hosted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a controversial visit to its campus. Demonstrators protested against the visit, and an online petition calling for its cancellation got more than 6,000 signatures. An editorial in the student newspaper, the MIT Tech, argued that by hosting the crown prince and seeking to deepen its relationship with Saudi Arabia the MIT administration was signaling its willingness to participate in an effort to rebrand Prince Mohammed “as a positive, transformative force for Saudi Arabia and consequently pave over his human rights violations … The administration is demonstrating that it is open to building relationships that empower war criminals, as long as it can expand its global influence in the meantime.”

Pressure on MIT mounted following the killing of Khashoggi, a crime that the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded was ordered by the crown prince. The killing of Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, brought intensified scrutiny to American colleges' ties with the kingdom.

Making matters worse for MIT was the fact that one of the alleged perpetrators in the killing of Khashoggi, Maher Mutreb, was present for the March visit by the crown prince to the MIT campus, and can be seen in the background of a picture (at right) of MIT president L. Rafael Reif and Prince Mohammed shaking hands.

Lester announced a reassessment of MIT's Saudi connections at the request of President Reif on Oct. 15, about two weeks following Khashoggi’s disappearance. The preliminary report is now being circulated within MIT for comment through Jan. 15. Lester will subsequently send a copy of the report and a summary of the comments to Reif for him to decide on a course of action for the university.

Lester said that feedback he collected from MIT students, faculty, staff and alumni ranged widely. “At one end of the spectrum, we had people who argued very passionately and forcefully that in light of these egregious actions that the Saudi government has taken we should join, MIT that is, should join in efforts to try to isolate the government and censure the government’s behavior,” Lester said. “At the other end of the spectrum, we had people who felt that this was actually exactly the wrong time to decouple from the people that we have worked with and it’s exactly the wrong time to withdraw from the kinds of activities that our students, including our Saudi students, are engaged in.”

“Obviously, I came down not in the middle of the spectrum,” Lester continued. “I came down toward the end of the range of views that emphasized the value of continuity and that the people we work with are good people, our students are good people, who want to do good things and that we should not abandon those purposes that we share with those people from the kingdom.”

As for new potential partnerships, Lester's report recommends that MIT should refrain at this time from any "large overseas engagements that require the physical presence of significant numbers of MIT people" in Saudi Arabia, but that it should consider new opportunities involving Saudi sponsors or donors "that are primarily conducted at MIT … as long as the activities comply with MIT’s policies and principles and relevant laws and regulations, and as long as faculty are willing to lead them."

The report is likely to have many detractors at MIT. An editorial authored by three professors published in the latest edition of the MIT Faculty Newsletter called for an independent assessment of MIT's activities in the kingdom, saying that "having a committee constituted by the administration, to investigate the administration’s actions, is clearly not adequate."

"It's a report from Richard Lester, one person," Jonathan King, one of the authors of the editorial and an emeritus professor of biology, said Thursday afternoon during a panel discussion evaluating the relationship between MIT and the Saudi monarchy. "It's not from a committee of the faculty; it's not from a committee of the institute. He says he talked to lots of faculty; none of them are named. This situation needs some kind of independent body that doesn't have representatives of the administration sitting on it."

"This is not the end of the process," King added." It's the beginning."

Nicolas Dumas, a graduate student in political science at MIT who has called on the university to sever ties with the Saudi government, described the report as “incredibly disappointing.”

“I was hopeful that this was actually a sincere sort of effort that would really engage with the implications of working with and continuing to essentially serve as a PR campaign for the Saudi government. This collaboration has been phenomenal PR for Mohammed bin Salman,” Dumas said.

Dumas disputed the idea that MIT and the Saudi government have shared interests in areas like vaccine research (an area of collaboration between MIT and a Saudi research university). "The claim that Mohammed bin Salman cares about children getting access to vaccines is on its face absurd. There is no area of mutual interest, and I think it’s unfortunate that MIT was perpetuating these messages," he said.

“The Saudi government clearly thought that the MIT leadership would be willing to overlook some of the most morally hideous human rights violations on the planet in exchange for funding,” Dumas said. “And they were correct, and that’s profoundly disheartening.”


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