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Bin Salman's wooing of top US universities raises concerns

Critics say Mohammed bin Salman's visit to MIT and Harvard help legitimise Saudi's controversial policies
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is currently touring the US (AFP)

BOSTON, United States - Earlier this week, the Egyptian government announced that its strongman president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had secured re-election with a staggering 97 percent of the vote.

The result was hardly surprising: other potential candidates were jailed or forced out of the race; voters were threatened with fines if they stayed away from the polls and the only opponent on the ballot was a man who was a Sisi supporter.

But some Egyptian media outlets painted a different picture: one of international election observers, including Americans, hailing the vote as a success for democracy.

One American election observer was Sasha Toperich, who heads an initiative at DC’s Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, which seeks to promote democratisation in the Middle East.

Invited by a politician who blamed the Egyptian revolution on a CIA plot, Toperich viewed the elections as a success and said he observed no voting breaches.

The election observer episode is just one recent example of how governments of Middle East countries seek to use renowned American universities to polish their images and bolster legitimacy and credibility.

Name-dropping top US universities known for academic rigour, progressive values and freedom of speech can serve as a powerful white-washing tool for authoritarians, observers say.

Buying relationships and legitimacy

Amid a three-week-long tour of the United States, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has also recognised the potential of American universities to boost his image as a moderniser and reformer.

While in Boston on 24 March, the crown prince held meetings at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two of the most well-known US universities. On his campus visits, he presided over the signing of collaborative agreements between the universities and Saudi institutions and companies.

“The kingdom is accelerating its progress toward a promising new future,” said MIT president Rafael Reif, according to an article released by MIT’s communications office. “No single nation, region, or institution has all the answers. But when we are willing to work together, we can always find opportunities to make each other better.”

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For a leader who promises to create the most technologically advanced city in the world, the scenes of him with leaders of American innovation - being lavished with praise no less - is a valuable asset.

“The prestige of those institutions rubs off on people like Mohammed bin Salman,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “When he goes and meets with the leadership of Harvard or MIT, it’s obviously a legitimising example of how he himself is being taken seriously among policy-shapers in the West.”

But while MBS’s visit was celebrated by Saudi Arabia, MIT and Harvard were mostly silent about the event. Neither university appears to have publicised the visit, with students only alerted of additional security and restricted access to parts of campus.

The student newspapers of both universities were not permitted into the event, despite the visit featuring the announcement of major partnerships. Spokespersons from both Harvard and MIT did not respond to interview requests from Middle East Eye about MBS’s visit.

The visit was not a surprise, nor was it a small affair: According to documents filed with the US Department of Justice, the government-owned King Abdullah University of Science and Technology paid an American PR firm almost $300,000 to handle invitations, promotions and press for the visit to MIT alone.

The handling of the visit chafed some on both campuses.

“The fact that Harvard and MIT felt that they didn’t have to disclose, that they could get away with not saying anything about this beforehand, just speaks to the depth of the way these partnerships are just driving the schools,” said Grif Peterson, an affiliate of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society. “They feel so unaccountable to students, faculty and the general public that they think they can invite this unbelievably controversial figure to the city without saying anything.”

Earlier this week, the city council of Cambridge, Boston’s neighbour where Harvard and MIT are located, passed a motion condemning MIT and Harvard for hosting MBS, citing his devastating war in Yemen, the repressive nature of the Saudi state and his purge of royals, businessmen and dissenters.

They feel so unaccountable to students, faculty and the general public

- Grif Peterson, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society

But Peterson, who spoke in favour of the Cambridge city council motion, believes that the visit will help improve MBS’s image in the US.

“The Saudi government, they’re not stupid and they know as well as anyone else that a photo with the president of MIT or the provost of Harvard is going to do a lot to legitimise their places as a progressive, quote-unquote Western-friendly government,” he said. “If you have money to offer and you can buy a photo... buy a relationship with these universities, it goes a long way to sort of prove that you are worthy of some sort of legitimacy.”

To Ulrichsen, the way the universities handled the visit highlighted the transactional nature of the relationship.

“For all universities there’s been a degree of transactionalism about it, and what the students think doesn’t necessarily come first in decision-making,” he said.

Murky ethics for US universities in Gulf

Other Gulf monarchies have gone further, inviting prominent American universities to establish campuses in their typically repressive countries.

The United Arab Emirates hosts New York University Abu Dhabi, while Qatar is home to six branch campuses of US universities: Northwestern, Georgetown, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell and Virginia Commonwealth.

American universities promise to bring the same level of education they provide in the US to their outposts in the Gulf, making education more accessible to those in other parts of the world while also exporting American academic values.

Meanwhile, host nations appear progressive and modern. Still, with institutions financially supported by the governments that host them, critics say they run into problems with academic freedom and end up bending to the restrictive will of their benefactors.

Photo of Texas A&M's satellite campus in Qatar (Texas A&M University)

“Institutions like NYU are going along with these restrictions and that’s dangerous,” said Mohamad Bazzi, a Lebanese-born NYU journalism professor. “It’s dangerous for the institutions themselves because they risk harming their reputation and it also, I think, belies the whole idea that somehow these institutions are spreading Western values.”

Bazzi was scheduled to teach at NYU Abu Dhabi last year, but was denied a security clearance by Emirati authorities, which is required for professors to obtain a work permit. He believes the denial was a result of his Shia Muslim background and he has spoken out about NYU going along with sectarian politics in the UAE.

As a result of the visa denials to Bazzi and another NYU professor, the university's journalism department cut ties with the Abu Dhabi campus last year.

“I do think that some governments in the region are using US and other Western institutions to enhance their image and produce this cultural cachet,” said Bazzi. “We’ve seen these governments make deals - very lucrative deals - with Western educational and cultural institutions, and there’s been a history of problems with these deals and with the promises that were made initially, at least by the institutions themselves.”

American university branches in Qatar have also been criticised.

Northwestern professor Stephen Eisenman, who formerly headed the university’s faculty senate, questioned the ethics of the college’s involvement in Qatar in a 2015 report, writing: “The ethics of establishing a campus in an authoritarian country are murky, especially when it inhibits free expression, and counts among its allies several oppressive regimes or groups.”

But while universities face opposition from faculty and students at home, their involvement in the Gulf remains lucrative. And host countries continue to benefit from their reputations.

“In the UAE and Qatar there was a feeling that winning these world-leading names was part of the branding of these states as something different, as not your average Middle Eastern state,” said Ulrichsen.

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