MIT insists on maintaining ties with Saudis despite condemning Khashoggi murder

Published 08.02.2019 00:03

Known for its close ties with Saudi Arabia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) condemned the kingdom for the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and for other "brutal human rights violations," but, despite the condemnation, the school's president said on Wednesday that he has no plans to cut ties with the kingdom.

Since Khashoggi's killing last October, the school has faced sharp criticism over its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, including research deals with the kingdom's national oil company, its national science laboratory and a chemical producer owned by the government. Last year, those deals brought $7.2 million to MIT.

Some students, faculty and alumni have urged the institution to break all ties with the kingdom, saying any continued links amounts to a tacit endorsement of the Saudi regime. But on Wednesday, MIT President Rafael Reif rejected that idea.

Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a group of Saudi operatives in the country's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. Initially denying and later downplaying the incident as an accidental killing in a fistfight, almost three weeks after the disappearance, Riyadh finally admitted that Khashoggi was murdered in a premeditated action, but denied any involvement by the royal family.

The incident was blamed on lower-level officials, including five that are now facing the death penalty over their involvement. Despite four months having passed since his assassination, the whereabouts of his body remain unknown.

The main question is whether the school will renew a five-year, $25 million research deal that was initially signed in 2012. Both the kingdom and the school agreed to a "letter of intent" to renew the deal in 2018, but it has yet to be finalized. That agreement is likely to be among the first to go through the school's bolstered review process.

A previous AP analysis of federal data found that MIT is among 37 U.S. universities that received $350 million from the Saudi government over the last decade. Although much came through a program that covers tuition for Saudi students in the U.S., at least $62 million came from separate contracts and gifts.

In making his decision, Reif accepted the recommendations of a Dec. 6 report by an associate provost who said he found no "compelling case" to withdraw from Saudi relationships. The review argued that none of MIT's partners in Saudi Arabia appear to have played a role in the planning or execution of Khashoggi's death.

But the review appears to have done little to ease disagreement on campus. An updated version of the report released Wednesday said officials have received 111 comments from MIT students, alumni and employees since Dec. 6. Of those, about three quarters opposed the report's conclusions, officials said.

In addition to a financial relationship with the kingdom, last year MIT also hosted a visit from the country's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Reif said that he understands the opposition, but hopes to show that the school's work in Saudi Arabia doesn't need to be all or nothing.

Although he "utterly condemns" Saudi Arabia's human rights violations and shares a "sense of horror" over its actions, Reif said he also sees value in working with Saudis who share MIT's principles. He said there are plenty in the kingdom working to change their society through research and education.

"Demonizing the regime is one thing, but demonizing the people who live under this regime is a different issue," Reif said. "We are dealing with really a progressive people in the kingdom, people who want to modernize the country."

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