Letter to Associate Provost Richard Lester
Regarding MIT Engagements with Saudi Arabia
15 January 2019
We write as historians and members of the MIT Faculty in response to your report to President Reif on MIT’s current engagements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). While we are not in agreement with your conclusions, we want to acknowledge the Administration’s willingness to hold an open conversation with the MIT community about these matters. It is in this spirit of open exchange that we write.
MIT’s relations with KSA before and after the March 2018 visit of Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) trouble us deeply. The atrocities of the war in Yemen, and the internal Saudi repression of women and LBGTQ Saudi citizens, were well known before last March. These activities suggest that the public relations effort in the West to present MBS as a modern reformer was a disingenuous campaign to provide cover for continuing abuses at home. In our view his March 2018 campus visit allowed MBS to claim tacit endorsement for his regime from MIT.
Your report suggests that MIT will put the funding we receive from KSA sources to good use in our labs and our classrooms, developing technologies and ideas that will benefit all Saudis, and others in our country and abroad. But MIT-style innovation should not serve to provide a kind of moral “laundering” of money derived from problematic sources.
Moreover, while we may think ourselves capable of making morally informed decisions about the uses of KSA funding, the vagaries of history should make us less confident of our ability to predict the future. Previous campus leaders who established the nuclear engineering exchange program with the government of the Shah of Iran no doubt thought differently about that decision in hindsight. Perhaps they should have paid more attention to the authoritarian tendencies of the Shah’s regime when deciding to establish the program, just as we should not ignore Saudi practices today.
You further suggest that the funding from Saudi Arabian sources comes from KACST, the state-owned enterprise Aramco, and SABIC, a public company majority-owned by the state. In your view, these entities are sufficiently distinct from the government actors responsible for the Khashoggi assassination and other unconscionable KSA policies that it is not meaningful for us to retaliate against them. We do not find this argument compelling. The government of Saudi Arabia is accountable only to the royal family, not to the citizens of the country. Therefore, all government-affiliated entities necessarily act in accord with the policies of MBS, his father the king, and the royal family, and must all be held equally accountable for their actions. The public/private distinction which holds in liberal democracies is not functional in a Saudi context.
You also argue that we need to continue engaging with well-intentioned Saudi citizens who come to MIT to study, developing relations with them now that will help us continue to engage profitably with KSA as these students move into leadership positions there. On this issue, we are indeed sympathetic to these students’ calls for support from MIT as they strive to reform their country. But we also note that the suppression of women’s rights, and those who advocate for them, continues in Saudi Arabia. Even as the regime granted driver’s licenses to some women, it was jailing those who had argued on behalf of this measure. It is not clear that MBS is willing to engage seriously at this point with reformers who advocate positions in opposition to his own, and it is not clear that the chances for long-term, successful reform while he is in power justify an engagement that may lend his regime comfort and support.
We are not in favor of continuing business as usual with KSA. We believe that the Institute needs to decline some of the funding that was proffered during the March 2018 visit, and end some KSA funding arrangements put in place earlier. We are not in a position to recommend which arrangements should be terminated, although we appreciate the initial information you have provided in your report to President Reif. We think, though, that it would send the wrong message to our alumni, students, and staff for leadership to continue working with KSA without a meaningful rebuke in response to the brutal Khashoggi assassination, the war in Yemen, and human rights violations within Saudi Arabia itself.
We also see this moment as an opportunity to reflect on our own values and educational goals. Specifically, we question whether the engagements MIT currently has with KSA do in fact “honor the Institute's principles,” as you say in the report.
If one of these principles is that learning cannot be limited to the study of science, technology, energy, etc., and that the humanities, social sciences and arts must be part of the conversation, then arguably the problem is not that we have too many ties to KSA, but rather that we have too few. In particular, we may have too few of the kind that humanists, artists, and social scientists could be involved in, and that would raise the kinds of issues that the proponents of divestment/withdrawal from KSA want to see. Might we couple vigorous discussion of politics, society, and economics with our world-class scientific and technological know-how when partnering with other governments and private interests? Specifically, we suggest that the Office of the Associate Provost for International Activities collaborate with the MIT Center for International Studies (or some other on-campus venue, though CIS has the logistical expertise to do this) to host a speaker series and public campus discussion on U.S.-Saudi relations, academic freedom in the Gulf region, and the context for MIT global partnerships in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. If we want to include ethical and historical perspectives in the curriculum of the new College of Computing, we also need to include them in our outward-facing engagements with the world.
Professor Craig Wilder and his students have explored an earlier moral challenge in the history of MIT and of our nation. There were many who believed slavery was wrong when the Institute was created, and yet we know now that our founder was a slaveholder, and that racist views played a role in shaping our early curriculum and campus values. In our generation complicity with authoritarian regimes may well turn out to be the moral litmus test for MIT. As we evaluate our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other actors whose values contradict our own, we need to think carefully about the balance between speaking out and looking the other way. Present needs are important, but the example we set for those who come after us at the Institute should also weigh heavily in our deliberations.