Saudi Ties to US Universities Under Question Amid Khashoggi Crisis

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urges Saudi Arabia to disclose who ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, we end today’s show looking at how US universities are facing new scrutiny over their close ties to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. In Connecticut, activists are calling on the University of New Haven to cut ties to King Fahd Security College in Saudi Arabia. According to news reports, the Saudi forensic doctor who allegedly dismembered Khashoggi’s body served on the editorial board of a publication tied to King Fahd Security College. Dr. Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy’s name was removed from the publication’s website this week. A forensic scientist from the University of New Haven served on the editorial board with him. We speak to Stanley Heller, executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee, and Harvard Medical School fellow Yarden Katz.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urges Saudi Arabia to discuss who ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, we end today’s show looking at how US universities are facing new scrutiny over their close ties to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. Earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited both Harvard and M.I.T. on his first official tour to the US. Ahead of the meeting, M.I.T. students presented their university’s president, Rafael Reif, with a stack of petitions protesting bin Salman’s visit.

M.I.T. STUDENT: We’re here because we want to urge President Reif to reconsider the meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. We are aware that this meeting is going to happen, but we feel that accepting resources from somebody in sort of a blanket way, without acknowledging that there is a substantial famine being caused by Mohammed bin Salman in Yemen, goes against the principles of M.I.T., which is wanting to maintain human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Both Harvard Provost Alan Garber and the M.I.T. President Rafael Reif met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi officials later publicized the meetings on social media in a move critics say was used to give the crown prince legitimacy. Meanwhile, Yale University Law School’s Abdallah S. Kamel Center for the Study of Islamic Law is reportedly funded by a Saudi potentate, and the University of New Haven in Connecticut has formally partnered with King Fahd Security College in Riyadh since 2016.

When the partnership was first announced, University of New Haven President Steven Kaplan said “We are excited to put the University of New Haven’s world-renowned programs in criminal justice, national security, and forensic studies at the service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s next generation of security professionals.”

Democracy Now! reached out to Harvard, to M.I.T., to the University of New Haven and Yale University Law School’s Abdallah S. Kamel Center for the Study of Islamic Law. None of the institutions accepted our offer to join us on the show today. But for more, we are joined by two people. In Boston, Massachusetts, Yarden Katz is with us, department fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School. He wrote an article for The Guardian on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to Harvard and M.I.T. His piece, focusing on the kingdom’s close ties to US universities, is headlined Elite universities are selling themselves — and look who’s buying.

And in Hartford, Connecticut we’re joined by Stanley Heller, executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee, also a member of the Coalition to End the US-Saudi Alliance. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Yarden Katz, let’s begin with you. Explain your response when you heard about what happened to The Washington Post columnist Khashoggi, the latest news — Turkey demanding the crown prince come clean on what he knows and who ordered this murder. Your response to that and how this connects to your protest?

YARDEN KATZ: I think it’s important emphasize that the protest started before the Khashoggi horrific murder. So when bin Salman was being greeted as a reformer when he visited the United States in the spring, he was visiting Harvard and M.I.T. as well, and already a local anti-war group here, Mass Peace Action, was protesting the visit. They said, “We don’t want this war criminal on our campus.”

The problem is that we didn’t really know when to protest, because the universities kept the visits so secret. So my colleague Grif Peterson and I, who I wrote the piece with, started investigating it, and we found that bin Salman was going to be hosted by the M.I.T. Media Lab, which is one of the school’s most famous laboratories. And that visit was kept very secret. People in the lab were told that if they want to access the lab that day, they would have to go through metal detectors, but they were not told why.

Bin Salman on that day received demos of the latest technologies at M.I.T., he met with leading university officials, he was demoed war technologies such as autonomous robots and he signed many new partnerships with these universities — and also his visit signaled the continuation of existing ones. So already back then, students were protesting it, activists were protesting it.

And even after lobbying, Cambridge City Council passed a resolution condemning the visit and condemning the way that M.I.T. and Harvard handled bin Salman’s visit and greeted him as a kind of reformer as opposed to the war criminal that he is. So the Khashoggi affair obviously has reignited interest in that, but it has been going on since March.

AMY GOODMAN: And you suggest that not only didn’t they publicize the visit; you’re saying they tried to cover it up, Yarden.

YARDEN KATZ: Yes, absolutely. And you can see the contrast in the way that these elite universities talk about their partnerships with the Saudis and the way that Saudi Arabia talks about it. So whenever you have a partnership like that with an elite institution like Harvard or M.I.T. that has a very progressive and techy image, the Saudi government uses that on social media. They use it to sort of create the illusion that they are really also a progressive government, that they’re really on the same page with M.I.T., that they superficially use the same language.

On the other hand, universities haven’t said much about it, they only put out a press release after the fact and they’re trying to minimize that. Because I think they realize that it doesn’t look good. Here you have a representative of an absolute monarchy coming to campus. There’s a devastating war in Yemen. Activists are being silenced and thrown in jail in Saudi Arabia. So it is not a good situation, and universities know that viscerally, but they want the money and they want the prestige of affiliating with these groups.

I would also like to add, though, that this is not just a Saudi issue. It’s really — we are not saying that universities like Harvard and M.I.T. are so ethically pure that they shouldn’t affiliate with the Saudi government, but rather that universities as a matter of routine practice form unaccountable partnerships that are negotiated in secret with many dubious actors. Sometimes it’s a foreign government like the Saudi government, and sometimes it’s a dubious American actor.

For instance, M.I.T. has numerous partnerships with Raytheon and Lockheed Martin who are weapons manufacturers. They are the biggest suppliers of weapons to the Saudi government. Their weapons are being used in Yemen. So the school bus that was demolished in Yemen earlier this year where 40 Yemeni children were killed, that attack was enacted used a Lockheed Martin-made bomb made in the US. So that is an American partnership that is also problematic and tied to this web of unaccountable partnerships that universities form all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: How did M.I.T. President Reif respond to you, Yarden Katz?

YARDEN KATZ: I think that’s a great question, and it’s very telling, their lack of response. We had a piece that was published in The Guardian. It’s a pretty visible venue, obviously. After our piece, the M.I.T. student newspaper The Tech published a very forceful and very perceptive editorial talking about M.I.T.’s hypocrisy and the gap between its espoused ideals of making the world a better place and its reality of hosting a war criminal. Then there was the Cambridge City Council resolution that I mentioned that was passed unanimously, also condemning the universities.

And the sad reality is that the universities didn’t have to confront any of this. They didn’t respond to the Cambridge City Council resolution. They didn’t respond to our piece. They’re generally unavailable for comment. The only response was M.I.T. President Rafael Reif writing an op-ed in the student newspaper in response to the editorial basically not engaging with the issues and just saying, “Look, universities have to make compromises. It’s a balancing act. And we prefer dialogue over no dialogue.”

AMY GOODMAN: The assistant vice president of communications at Harvard University, Melodie Jackson, declined our offer to be on the show, but she did send Democracy Now! a statement that read in part, “As a global research university, Harvard has a broad and robust scholarly engagement in the Middle East, including in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and has benefited immensely from the intellectual contributions of Saudi-based individuals over the years…We are following recent events with concern and are assessing potential implications for existing programs,” she said.

Now I want to turn to University of New Haven in Connecticut. Stanley Heller, you are executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee, also a member of the Coalition to End the US-Saudi Alliance. Talk about what happened at UNH and at Yale.

STANLEY HELLER: Good morning, Amy. We have been alarmed for about a year and a half that the University of New Haven has a program — kind of secretive; we don’t know exactly what it is — to have its Henry C. Lee College that specializes in forensic and police work helping the King Fahd Security College, and this is a college where all of the police in Saudi Arabia go for training. We wrote to them. We had a letter signed by nearly 50 prominent Americans telling them, warning them about Saudi Arabia. We got no response at all. So that was about a year ago.

Then the Khashoggi killing, we started wondering what is going on. The Turkish sources started saying, leaking that the alleged killer was a man named Salah al-Tubaigy, a top forensic scientist. So we are starting to think, “Forensic scientist? That is some of the things that Henry C. Lee College is famous for.” We did some poking around on some Saudi websites, and we saw the editorial board of a Saudi forensic society had on it Henry Lee and a Dr. Salah Tubaigy. This was extraordinary. So we sent out press releases, and we have been trying to get some response to the university.

The university, in a year and a half, has never said a word to us, but they do say some things to the media. The first response was, “Well, we’re told that it’s a different al-Tubaigy. The spelling is different.” And so on. That seems pretty odd that there would be two Saudi top forensic scientists with the name al-Tubaigy. So we wrote to that society and asked them, “Is there a second al-Tubaigy?” A Hartford Courant reporter also did the same and never got a response. And then just a couple of days ago on that editorial board page, in English, Salah Tubaigy’s name was removed. So we think that theory of the two al-Tubaigys has been put to rest.

AMY GOODMAN: Stanley Heller, we have to break, but we’re going to do part two of this, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org. We’ve got to end the show. Stanley Heller, executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee, and Yarden Katz, department fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School. Tonight, Juan González will be speaking at Rutgers University, moderating a discussion in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at 7:00 p.m with Oscar López Rivera and Puerto Rican scholars Ivonne Acosta-Lespier and Johanna Fernández. That does it for the broadcast. We have a job opening — full-time broadcast engineer, here in New York. Check our website. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.