Response to Professor Lester’s Report on
MIT’s Involvement with Saudi Arabia
12 January 2019
Prof. Lester says in his report that it is appropriate for MIT to reconsider its relationship with Saudi Arabia, given that “large-scale violations of political, civil, and human rights have been extensively documented over a long period.”1 For example, the Saudi military aggression in Yemen has resulted in the deaths of more than 1200 children, while an estimated 13 million Yemenites could soon face starvation, according to October UN reports.2 Arguably, this is a form of genocide.3 The rise of Mohammed bin Salman has accompanied blatant human rights violations, including the imprisonment of hundreds of supporters of a constitutional government and leaders of the women’s rights movement, and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. It is a mistake to think that Mohammed bin Salman is a force for good.
Prof. Lester recommends “against terminating [MIT’s] relationships with the Saudi government agency KACST, the state-owned enterprise Aramco, and SABIC, a public company majority-owned by the state.” The argument in favor of this is a rough cost-benefit analysis. According to Prof. Lester, the organizations in question likely have no control over the violation of human rights, and coordinating with them will bring some good to the society through the work done at MIT.
We applaud Prof. Lester’s offer that “if any of the principal investigators who are leading these projects conclude that they do not wish to continue to do so in light of recent events, the Institute should work with them to minimize the resulting disruption to the research and to affected personnel, including most importantly our students.” We urge individual faculty to take advantage of this offer and that MIT draw on its own resources to cover the costs of any faculty member’s withdrawing from Saudi funding.
We object, however, to the recommendation that MIT maintain its relationships with KACST, Aramco, and SABIC, and take the following considerations to be compelling:
1) Prof. Lester seems to assume that when making moral judgments, the right approach is to employ a cost-benefit analysis. He also assumes, without compelling evidence, that the balance of considerations weigh in favor of ongoing engagement. It is simply speculation to suggest that KACST, Aramco, and SABIC, do not have ties to the human rights violations – in spite of their close connections to the Saudi monarchy – and that MIT’s withdrawal will have no significant effect. Given the high moral stakes of continuing engagement, we believe that such speculation is inadequate as a basis for his recommendation.
We applaud MIT’s desire to do good in the world, but when considering the power of authoritarian regimes to do harm, it is important to address the problem at a structural and institutional level.
For example, Aramco has a monopoly over petroleum in Saudi Arabia and this sector contributed 87% of Saudi budget revenue in 2018, and 42% of GDP, and 90% of export earnings.4 In other words, Aramco provides funding for massive human rights violations. Even if these organizations do not control the actions of the Saudi regime, they provide income and credibility. Although individuals surely benefit from MIT’s involvement, we find it highly implausible that MIT’s engagements with KACST, Aramco, and SABIC will contribute to progressive social and political change in Saudi Arabia.
2) To rely entirely on a cost-benefit analysis is to embrace a crude and untenable consequentialism. Moral evaluation requires consideration of a broader array of reasons for action. For example, the violation of human rights carries a special moral weight that cannot be offset by potential gains of other sorts. In particular, the extensive documented violation of human and civil rights perpetrated by the Saudi government cannot be offset by imagined economic and social gains.
For example, legal considerations, of course, bear a special weight in moral argument, not just because violating the law brings bad consequences. Some US Federal and international laws are designed to protect human rights. There are federal laws that apply to Saudi companies and the regime – such as the Torture Victims Protection Act. Even if MIT is not strictly speaking violating these laws, ongoing collaboration violates their spirit.
3) Prof. Lester’s argument fails to situate MIT’s actions as having expressive power, not just instrumental power. Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to the United States was clearly an effort to gain symbolic support and legitimacy. Leaders in MIT’s administration took advantage of opportunities to be photographed with him. These images directly link MIT with his regime. We believe that Mohammed bin Salman’s actions are antithetical to the values that MIT holds dear, and lending our name and our face to give him credibility is a deep violation of what we stand for as an institution. Action must be taken to distance MIT from his regime in order to maintain our own credibility.
4) Commitment to a set of values is only as strong as our willingness to act on them, even when doing so is not in our immediate self-interest. Given the substantial resources that MIT receives from KACST, Aramco, and SABIC, one could argue that it is not in MIT’s self-interest to cut ties. But to pursue our self-interest - or even to appear to pursue our own self-interest - in this case is to show the hollowness of our values.
5) It is unclear to us whether MIT’s current relationship with KACST, Aramco, and SABIC has gone through an appropriate vetting process. What is the extent of their investments, business relationships, environmental or social impact, linkages with Saudi security system? Are there safeguards against abuse of research data or findings? Why is this not discussed in the report? And although the report discusses current relationships, it does not adequately address the potential for future involvement. Might new initiatives be launched? By what process would they be vetted?
With these considerations in mind, we urge the MIT administration to:
- Cut MIT’s financial ties with KACST, Aramco, and SABIC.
- Make a public announcement that if any individual MIT researcher chooses to cut ties with Saudi Arabia, MIT will cover the cost of this decision to protect its students and research programs.
- Institute a faculty-led investigation into further ties to Saudi Arabia asking for further recommendations. Prof. Lester is one individual. If MIT believes in faculty governance, it should not let the word of one individual speak for all.
Thank you for your consideration,