‘MBS,’ Saudi Arabia and Academic Freedom

Who gets to think and write freely in higher ed?

April 9, 2020

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman by Ben Hubbard

Published in March 2020

Reading nonfiction is problematic during a pandemic. COVID-19 has so fundamentally dislocated society. Much of the pre-virus analysis feels irrelevant. This seems like a time to perhaps step away from current affairs books and read history and fiction.

Or maybe not. MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman is a book that feels relevant in these times. For higher ed readers -- even those without an academic or other interest in Saudi Arabia -- MBS may be especially important to read during these difficult months.

MBS tells the story of Saudi Arabia through the rise of its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (whom everyone calls MBS). Saudi Arabia, as you know, is a key strategic economic (oil) and military partner to the U.S. The kingdom’s vast proven oil reserves (over 300 billion barrels, just behind Venezuela) ensure that this country of 33 million people will have outsized global influence.

MBS can read in several ways. The book is a biography of the 35-year-old crown prince (and next in line to be king), detailing how this previously little-known prince maneuvered to gain complete control of the economic, political and military levers of the kingdom. MBS also provides a good overview of what life is like for ordinary Saudis, contextualized through a concise history of the country’s development.

MBS tells two biographical stories -- that of the crown prince, and that of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Much of the book concerns the brutal murder of Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi security operatives, a killing that MBS received international condemnation for his role in sanctioning.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist at the time of his murder, was killed by the Saudi state for his critical writing about the monarchy. A Saudi citizen living in the U.S., Khashoggi never called for regime change or violent opposition. Instead, he advocated for greater openness and transparency within the Saudi system. While a supporter of democracy, Khashoggi did not believe that the Saudi monarchy should be replaced.

It is the story of the intersection of MBS’s rise and Khashoggi’s murder that is worth considering from a higher ed perspective. The killing of a peaceful journalist is the most extreme example of what can happen when there is no freedom of expression.

Reading MBS got me thinking about the relationship between academic and press freedom.

Academic freedom is, of course, different from the freedom of speech, and the press is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. What academic freedom does is protect the ability of some academics necessary to pursue their scholarship.

The concepts of free speech and academic freedom are different but linked. You can’t have the latter without the former.

The story of higher education over the past three decades is one of a move away from tenure. We know this story, and we usually think of the decline of tenure-track jobs in the context of the loss of economic security that adjunctification entails.

The move away from tenure, however, is also a move away from academic freedom.

There is a rapidly dwindling proportion of those within academia who have the protections to pursue their scholarship and who can write without fear of losing their jobs.

The protections of academic freedom are also limited to those at the top of the higher ed caste system. Both adjunct faculty and staff have no protections of academic freedom.

Reading about Saudi Arabia, and the rise of MBS and the murder of one of its journalists, made me grateful for the free and open society in which we live.

The book also made me think about what we are losing by failing to protect, and even possibly grow, the ability of those within academia to pursue scholarship without fear of retribution.

As we think about the future of higher education, what can we say about the future of academic freedom?

What academic freedom, if any, do you enjoy?

What are you reading?


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