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Report reassesses MIT’s relationship with Saudi Arabia

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Today, MIT Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester emailed the MIT community a preliminary report making recommendations regarding the Institute’s current engagements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Lester has asked members of the community to offer any feedback by Jan. 15.

Both the report and a summary of any comments on it will then be presented to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who requested the report following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reif will use the report to guide his decisions about the relationship between MIT and Saudi Arabia going forward.

MIT has long participated in educational and research collaborations with colleagues and sponsors in Saudi Arabia. These types of activities, the report says, are aligned with MIT’s objective, outlined in the 2017 report “A Global Strategy for MIT,” of working with international collaborators to solve the 21st century’s most challenging problems. And in an Oct. 15 letter to the MIT faculty, Lester noted that Saudi students, faculty, and staff working at MIT today are valued members of the community. 

Some at MIT and elsewhere, the report notes, had hoped that Saudi Arabian leadership was taking steps to build a more progressive society, and that engaging with the Kingdom might help support these developments. However, “The Khashoggi murder has deflated many of those hopes,” Lester writes in the report.

In preparing his report, Lester sought input from MIT faculty, students, staff, and alumni, and consulted the faculty International Advisory Committee as well as external experts on Saudi Arabia and the region.

Types of support to MIT

The activities that MIT is conducting with Saudi Arabian organizations can be grouped into three categories, according to the report.

The largest category is sponsored research, which refers to research projects carried out under the leadership of MIT faculty or senior research scientists with funding from Saudi sponsors. Over the last three years, sponsored research projects funded by Saudi organizations accounted for 52 percent of all Saudi-funded expenditures at MIT. As with all of MIT’s sponsored research, these projects are carried out under agreements that specify the area of work, the objectives of the research, and other terms under which the work is to be done. Sponsors are not allowed to influence the performance of the work or its results, and researchers are free to publish their findings, the report states.

The second category is philanthropic activities, which made up 44 percent of all Saudi-related expenditures at MIT over the past three years. MIT has received both private and corporate gifts from Saudi sources; they have supported work to alleviate poverty, make food and water more securely available, educate the marginalized, and improve public health.

Philanthropy has also allowed MIT to grow the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship Program for Saudi Arabian Women. The program began under a research collaboration with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), but it was significantly expanded by a subsequent gift from Saudi Aramco. Today, it is supported by a gift from the King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST).

The remaining 4 percent of Saudi funding supports miscellaneous other programs; for example MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program has three Saudi members, and Saudi organizations have also participated in MIT executive education programs.

Recommended course of action

The report recommends continuing to welcome outstanding Saudi students and researchers, as well as appropriate Saudi visitors, to MIT’s campus. It also recommends against terminating the Institute’s existing engagements with private Saudi donors and with Saudi Aramco, KACST, and the majority-state-owned company SABIC.

In the report, Lester writes that these organizations support important activities at MIT “on terms that honor the Institute’s principles and comply with our policies,” and that they are supporting outstanding Saudi students and women scientists and engineers “who will surely be at the vanguard of social change in that country.”

“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.”

In some countries, MIT has undertaken long-term projects that involve individuals from MIT staying abroad for long periods of time. Although MIT currently has no such arrangement in Saudi Arabia, Lester recommends against planning any such engagements in the Kingdom in the future, at least until conditions on the ground there have changed significantly.

Looking ahead, the report also suggests that it is appropriate to consider new engagements with private donors as well as certain state entities such as KACST and Aramco, provided that the activities comply with MIT’s policies and principles, and that faculty are willing to lead them, and as long as MIT’s senior leadership, with appropriate internal and external advice, concludes after careful deliberation that the balance of actual and potential impacts, positive and negative, weighs in favor of the relationship.  

Lester anticipates that some members of the MIT community will disagree with these conclusions, for reasons including those outlined in an Oct. 25 letter to The Tech. The students who wrote the letter argued that MIT’s collaboration with the Saudi government helps to sanction a bad regime.

“It’s a tough call, because none of us wants to lend legitimacy to grotesque actions like the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi,” Lester told MIT News. “I know that some members of our community believe that MIT has an obligation to join in efforts to censure and isolate the Saudi government, and I think they will say we’re making the wrong judgment here.  But the judgment I have made is that on balance, the benefits provided by the work we’re doing outweigh the impact of any kind of reputational support our activities may provide to those in Saudi Arabia responsible for these malevolent actions, and the value of our work also outweighs any possible correctives that would flow from curtailing these activities.

“Over decades,” Lester continued, “MIT has gotten to know good people in Saudi Arabia who are working hard to try to modernize their country. In seeking to continue to work with them, we are honoring their commitment to improving the world. MIT should not punish them for the actions of their leaders — but instead say, ‘Our friendship and shared sense of purpose matter now more than ever.’ ”

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