Mohammed bin Salman slipped into Cambridge in March under heavy guard, at the start of a three-week US tour designed to burnish his image as a reformer. In the coming days, the Saudi crown prince would meet with Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and Oprah Winfrey.
But on this day, he was being welcomed by two of the world’s great universities. With no notice to the wider MIT or Harvard communities, he arrived in an armored vehicle with black-clad security personnel posted on the rooftops. At Harvard, he met with the provost and professors at the faculty club. At MIT, he and other Saudi leaders signed six agreements strengthening the kingdom’s corporate, educational, and governmental ties to the university.
“The kingdom is accelerating its progress toward a promising new future,” MIT president L. Rafael Reif declared in a speech welcoming the crown prince.
But now, the picture of a modernizing prince working closely with the brightest minds in Cambridge to advance health, education, and technology is being ripped apart by allegations that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist who Turkish officials say was tortured and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.
MIT, which had staunchly defended its relationship with the Saudis, despite the country’s brutal three-year war in Yemen, announced this week that it is reexamining its ties to the kingdom in light of Khashoggi’s death. Harvard said it is “following recent events with concern” and “assessing potential implications for existing programs.”
Neither university has provided a full accounting of the many partnerships they have formed with the kingdom, but a review of those that have been publicly disclosed shows how difficult it would be to unravel the extensive ties, even if that were something the universities were considering.
MIT has accepted at least $25 million from Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, since 2012, using the money to launch the MIT Energy Initiative, which is focused on developing clean and renewable energy. The prince’s foundation, MiSK, recently became a “member company” at the MIT Media Lab, which requires a commitment of at least $250,000 a year over three years, according to the technology website CNET.
Prince Mohammed visited the lab, where he was shown a canine robot built by Boston Dynamics and other cutting-edge technology. One of the security guards who accompanied him during the tour is suspected of participating in the operation that killed Khashoggi, according to The New York Times.
At Harvard, the financial and institutional ties also run deep.
In 2005, Harvard accepted $20 million from his cousin, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to launch the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program, which has three endowed professorships that bear the prince’s name. That same year, Alwaleed, wooed by Harvard Medical School officials in Riyadh, donated another $5 million to the Dubai Harvard Foundation for Medical Research, which supports biomedical research and academic programs in the Middle East. Earlier this year, Alwaleed was detained for three months at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton as part of a corruption crackdown led by Mohammed.
MiSK, his foundation, said in 2016 that it has an agreement with Harvard to allocate 12.5 percent of the 800 seats at a Harvard summer school program “for MiSK students.”
In 2014, Harvard named another Saudi royal, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, chief representative for the Middle East in the university’s “Tourism Leaders Program,” according to Saudi officials. Still another royal, Prince Turki bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has funded the Project on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council Security at the Kennedy School of Government, although the size of his gift has not been disclosed.
Such connections are common for the royal family, a close ally of the US government whose members have donated millions of dollars to other American universities. But critics say Harvard and MIT, given their international renown, give the family particular credibility, as the Saudis continue a US-backed bombing campaign in Yemen that has led to what the United Nations calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” with about 75 percent of Yemen’s population — including 11.3 million children — depending on emergency assistance to survive.
“They are able to establish more legitimacy than they should have as a violent dictatorship that’s pursuing a genocidal war,” said Mark Weisbrot, president of Just Foreign Policy, an antiwar group that collected more than 6,000 names on an online petition calling on MIT to cancel Prince Mohammed’s March visit.
Criticizing Harvard and MIT, he said, “There’s an implied approval when you take that kind of money from a government.”
In a letter published in the student newspaper in April, Reif defended the Saudi relationship, saying MIT generally favors working with governments, even those whose “values and actions we reject.” He pointed to some of the benefits, including the Ibn Khaldun fellowship, which is substantially funded by Saudi Aramco and has brought 27 Saudi women scientists to MIT for postdoctoral research.
“We could instead choose a strategy of refusing to engage,” Reif wrote. “In most instances, however, it appears to us that our not engaging neither creates nor encourages significant positive change.”
But after Khashoggi’s death sparked international outrage, Reif shifted his stance.
In a letter to faculty last week, Richard Lester, an associate provost at MIT, wrote that Reif had asked him to lead “a swift, thorough reassessment of MIT’s Institute-level engagements with entities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia so that we can determine a course of action for the Institute.”
He noted that MIT has “enjoyed highly productive educational and research collaborations with colleagues and partners in Saudi Arabia over many decades” and benefited from the presence of Saudi students, faculty, and staff on campus.
But Lester said the allegations around Khashoggi’s death “are matters of grave concern to all of us.”
“As we consider how to respond to current events, individual faculty members who have or are considering engagements with Saudi Arabia will make their own determinations as to the best path forward,” Lester wrote.
Shireen Al-Adeimi, an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, expressed frustration that MIT had defended Mohammed’s visit when the criticism focused on the thousands killed in Yemen and only agreed to reexamine its ties to the Saudis after Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was killed.
Adeimi, who was born in Yemen and received her doctorate from Harvard this summer, was among a small group who protested outside MIT the day before the prince arrived.
“Only when a well-connected journalist was brutally murdered did all of a sudden all of these people and institutions and governments seem to want to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia, which is welcome and important,” Adeimi said. “But it should have been happening years ago.”
Jonathan A. King, an MIT professor of biology who also protested the crown prince’s visit, expressed concern that the institute will not publicly release the six agreements with Saudi Arabia that Reif and others signed during Mohammed’s tour.
Saudi and MIT officials have described the agreements only in general terms, saying they extend Saudi Aramco’s support for the MIT Energy Initiative for another five years, extend the fellowship for Saudi women, and connect other Saudi educational and businesses institutions with MIT to develop better medical care, transportation, and renewable energy.
“If it was just about alternative energy, why do it in secret?” King said. “If it was just about increasing exchanges with Saudi women, why do it in secret? When you’re at a university, and the administration won’t release the information, you suspect it’s because they know the students or faculty would object.”
Harvard, while saying in a statement that it is “assessing potential implications for existing programs,” emphasized that it would “continue as before to welcome scholars and students from Saudi Arabia to the Harvard community.”
Douglas W. Elmendorf, the Kennedy School dean, acknowledged that his school receives Saudi financial support.
“Our principal standards for such work are whether it maintains our tradition of scholarly excellence, whether it can be conducted without donors’ attempting to influence the conclusions of our scholarship, and whether it has positive effects on people in the societies where we are engaged,” Elmendorf said in a statement. “We believe that our work in Saudi Arabia meets those standards and have made no changes in that work at this point.”
Yarden Katz, a departmental fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School, who coauthored an editorial in the Guardian criticizing Harvard and MIT for accepting Saudi donations, said it won’t be enough for the universities to renounce the financial support.
Universities, he said, have to allow outside scrutiny of the partnerships they form with foreign governments. Otherwise, said Katz, who received a PhD from MIT in 2014, “they inevitably get tangled up with dubious actors like Mohammed bin Salman, a war criminal.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org