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MIT should keep ties with Saudis, internal report says

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited MIT’s campus in March, where he viewed an innovation gallery of Saudi Arabian technology.
Associated Press/KAUST/File
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited MIT’s campus in March, where he viewed an innovation gallery of Saudi Arabian technology.

MIT should maintain its financial and research ties to Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s involvement in a civil war and humanitarian crisis in neighboring Yemen, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s suspected links to the brutal killing of a journalist, an internal university report recommends.

The preliminary report, which was sent to the MIT community on Thursday, acknowledges “the large-scale violations of political, civil and human rights” in Saudi Arabia, but concludes that withdrawing from partnerships would have little effect on the Middle East government.

MIT president Rafael Reif asked for a review of the university’s relationships with the longtime US ally after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The dissident journalist was tortured and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey on the orders of the crown prince, according to US officials briefed on the matter.

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“It is true that those organizations are part of a government that has been implicated in the murder of journalist Khashoggi, that is pursuing repressive policies at home, and whose participation in the Yemeni civil war has been widely condemned,” wrote Richard K. Lester, the associate provost of international activities, in the report.

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But terminating MIT’s engagement wouldn’t have “any meaningful ameliorative effect on those actions. On the positive side, these organizations are supporting important research and activities at MIT on terms that honor our principles and comply with our policies,” according to the report.

The university would not detail the total amount of money it gets from organizations and individuals tied to the Saudi government, but has acknowledged that it funds MIT research and programs on oil and gas technology, public health, and climate change. The partnerships have also allowed Saudi women to study at MIT, according to the report.

For example, 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.

In recent years, the kingdom and Prince Mohammed have cultivated an image of Saudi Arabia as a country on the path to modernization, providing its citizens with greater freedoms, such as permitting women to drive. Earlier this year, MIT welcomed the crown prince and his entourage, including a guard linked to the Khashoggi murder, to campus. At the time, Reif lauded the country’s “promising new future.”

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But international outrage over the journalist’s murder has forced higher education institutions, US businesses, and Congress to reconsider their alliances with Saudi Arabia and turned the spotlight on the Yemen conflict.

Harvard University also has deep ties to the Saudi royal family, including the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program, which was funded through a $20 million gift from Mohammed’s cousin. The school has said it would assess “potential implications for existing programs” in light of the Khashoggi killing. But it emphasized that it would “continue as before to welcome scholars and students from Saudi Arabia to the Harvard community.”

Some students, alumni, and faculty members have called on MIT to cut its ties to Saudi Arabia.

In the Senate, efforts to condemn the crown prince for Khashoggi’s killing and curb American support for the Saudi-led military action in Yemen are moving forward.

But the ties between Saudi Arabia and the US government and American institutions are longstanding and complex.

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President Trump defended the relationship last month, citing the hundreds of millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia has spent on military equipment manufactured by American defense companies. Trump insisted that the United States should continue backing the Saudi kingdom and has opposed canceling any financial contracts with the government.

Saudi contracts create jobs and additional wealth for the United States, Trump has said.

MIT’s position isn’t that different from Trump’s, the university’s critics said.

“They’re clearly valuing business over human life,” Shireen al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-born assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, said. “It honestly reminded me what Trump has been saying.”

Adeimi participated in a protest outside MIT last March before Prince Mohammed signed four agreements to strengthen the kingdom’s corporate, educational, and governmental ties with the university.

Jonathan A. King, an MIT biology professor, said that by remaining in partnership with the Saudi royal family, the university will “have the effect of legitimizing, stabilizing, and protecting one of the most backward regimes in the world today.”

King equated the recommendation to MIT’s decision in the 1980s to continue investing in the apartheid government in South Africa.

Lester acknowledged that the recommendation is likely to be controversial but said money wasn’t the motive. While Saudi contributions may be important to individual research projects, they make up a sliver of the university’s overall $3.3 billion annual operating budget — which would amount to an estimated $11 million — Lester said.

“The judgment I’ve reached was not driven by financial considerations,” Lester said in an interview on Thursday. “We’ve had the relationships with good people, who are trying to do good things. . . . We are not going to punish them for the actions of their leaders.”

Lester recommended that MIT look carefully at its future partnerships with Saudi-backed entities.

MIT was considering a large economic development project on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia championed by Prince Mohammed, but the proposal is currently on the shelf.

Members of the MIT community will be able to provide feedback on the report until Jan. 15. The report and the feedback will be presented to Reif, who will use the information to guide future decisions, the university said.

Adeimi said she hopes that MIT alumni will reconsider their financial support of the university and that faculty and students will protest the recommendation.

MIT is trying to separate Saudi government organizations from the country’s rulers to justify the continued links, Adeimi said.

But in a country where the royal family controls so much of the government, that is impossible, she said.

“It’s disingenuous,” Adeimi said.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.