Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman visits MIT

Protesters call for MIT to cancel visit, citing Saudi involvement in Yemeni crisis

8523 nshafiul protest
Protesters gathered outside Lobby 7 the day before the prince was to visit MIT.
Mahi Shafiullah–The Tech
8525 bos 1128
Black cars filed in and out of Amherst Street, which was partially blocked by a "Road Closed" sign, throughout the day.
Courtesy of Malte Ahrens
8526 bos 1134
In addition to MIT police and security staff, members of the Cambridge police department patrolled the area as well.
Courtesy of Malte Ahrens
8527 bos 1161
Mohammed bin Salman left the Media Lab with President Reif at around 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Courtesy of Malte Ahrens
8528 bos 1170
Many Media Lab event attendees accompanied Mohammed bin Salman as he exited the building.
Courtesy of Malte Ahrens

Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, visited MIT Saturday as one of the stops on his first official tour of the U.S.

“His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit today in Greater Boston focused on nurturing ties between the private sector and academia of the two nations,” according to a press release by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia’s Information Office.

The prince’s visit was in conjunction with the second annual Innovation to Impact forum, which was held at the Samberg Center in E52 Saturday morning as part of an “ongoing collaboration” between MIT and several Saudi Arabian entities, specifically King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and the General Authority of Small and Medium Enterprises.

“Saudi Arabia and MIT have a longstanding collaborative relationship focused on subjects of mutual interest,” Kimberly Allen, director of media relations and deputy director of MIT News, wrote in an email to The Tech.

This includes “creating opportunities for post-doctoral Saudi women scientists and engineers to study at MIT” and “supporting the development of sustainable energy,” Allen continued. “Saudi Aramco is a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative.”

Leaders at the forum included MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources Khalid Al-Falih. Collaborative agreements on various research initiatives, such as those Allen listed, were signed by the participants and “inaugurated by the Crown Prince,” according to the press release.

The Saudi Embassy also tweeted that the prince toured an innovation exhibition at MIT that showcased “selected industrial innovations produced by several Saudi companies and universities.”

Aside from limited official publicity, secrecy and rigid security have surrounded Mohammed’s visit, which took place at the Media Lab shortly after the forum.

Allen wrote in her email that “when circumstances indicated the Crown Prince's desire to visit MIT” during his time in Greater Boston, “MIT agreed to host him.”

Regarding further details, Allen emphasized that the Saudi Arabian embassy is “the entity to officially speak for and describe the movements of the Crown Prince.”

The embassy did not answer The Tech’s calls.

Prof. Rob Miller, East Campus head of house, sent an email Friday afternoon notifying EC residents that a “high-level visitor” would be on campus Saturday for an event at the Media Lab across the street.

“There will be multiple vehicles in the area and extra security measures, including people on the roof of 70 Amherst Street. MIT Police are involved in the planning and aware of the measures being taken,” Miller wrote. “This is just a heads-up, there’s no cause for alarm.”

The Tech went to the Media Lab Saturday morning, before the event started. “No Parking” signs were put up throughout the street in the front and side of the building.

Staff members wearing jackets that said “Residential Life and Dining” (likely Allied Barton security workers) were being briefed on the protocol for the day, which included no cell phone usage and only admitting people who had specific forms of identification; the “VIP” would arrive around 2 p.m., according to the person leading the meeting.

One of the attendees who arrived at the Media Lab early, a post-doc at KAUST, told The Tech that the event, which he said was an “exhibition between MIT and Saudi Arabia,” would start at 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. and that Mohammed was expected to visit around 2 p.m.

But when The Tech sought additional confirmation from event staff, they declined to comment on Mohammed’s visit or even on what the event at the Media Lab was.

When The Tech returned to the Media Lab in the early afternoon, at least one and at times three or more staff members stood at each entrance of the building.

A resident of EC told The Tech he witnessed numerous security details patrolling the area over the course of the afternoon. This included a combination of MIT police, Cambridge police (including at least two officers who were heavily armed), secret service agents, and several black-clothed persons with binoculars on the roof of 70 Amherst Street.

The Tech did not witness Mohammed entering the Media Lab, but the resident saw and photographed Mohammed exiting at 5:33 p.m.

MIT and Harvard students, as well as local activist groups such as Massachusetts Peace Action, led a protest against Mohammed’s visit outside Lobby 7 at noon Friday.

The protest attracted between thirty and fifty participants, who held signs with slogans such as “No Saudi War Criminal at MIT” and chanted “What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? Now.”  

A petition started by an organization called Just Foreign Policy also gathered more than 6,000 signatures. The petition called for MIT to cancel Mohammed’s visit, alleging that the Saudi bombardment and blockade of Yemen essentially amounted to using starvation as a war tactic. Students submitted the petition to Reif’s office Friday.

The Yemen Civil War is an ongoing conflict between the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and opposition groups, including the Houthi movement and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia, together with eight other Arab states and with the logistical support of of the U.S., the U.K., and France, is intervening in the war on behalf of Hadi, according to BBC’s overview of the crisis.

The war, which passed its 1,000th day mark in December, has created “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” according to a joint statement from the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

“The crown prince has committed countless war crimes that have been documented by human rights groups, and so I think it’s an embarrassment for MIT to be associated with him and to welcome him here this weekend — on the third anniversary, in fact, of the war,” Shireen Al-Adeimi, a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and one the organizers of the protest, told The Tech Friday.

Al-Adeimi was born and raised in Yemen. “We have people back home, friends and family, who can’t find adequate food, who can’t find clean water. … It’s getting harder and harder for people to survive every day. Already people are dying in the tens of thousands,” she said in a follow-up interview with The Tech.

Al-Adeimi also emphasized that they were not just protesting the fact that someone from Saudi Arabia was coming: rather, Mohammed is Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense and thus “the architect of the war in Yemen.”

Jonathan King, an emeritus professor in MIT’s biology department, also spoke at the protest. “The notion that this institution should support an absolute monarchy by the crown prince is really scandalous,” King said.

Ryuga Hatano ’18, another protester, was unhappy about the lack of transparency around the visit. “[Reif] at least owes students and the community an explanation for exactly what the meeting is about,” Hatano said in an interview with The Tech.

Whitney Zhang contributed reporting.