Opinion open letter

President Reif, cut MIT’s ties to Saudi Arabia now!

The Saudi regime targets and kills civilians in Yemen, oppresses and executes women and LGBTQ people, and assassinates journalists. MIT must not collaborate with them.

Dear President Reif,

We write to you as graduate students in the Political Science Department at MIT, concerned about the Institute’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. We come from all over the world and have a range of political, religious, and ideological backgrounds. As students of politics, we understand that the world is incredibly complex, and that sometimes in order to pursue good goals, actors must make difficult decisions. We know that you and MIT’s leadership initially approached the Institute’s partnership with Saudi Arabia with the noblest of intentions. However, at this point, MIT’s continued collaboration with the Saudi government sends the message that human rights violations can be overlooked in favor of financial considerations. It assures Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, that MIT will tolerate his present and future transgressions. And it enables the regime to profit off of MIT’s reputation. This both grants the kingdom impunity and damages MIT’s reputation. For these reasons, we urge you to 1) end all business between MIT and the government of Saudi Arabia, 2) release a statement condemning the government of Saudi Arabia for their continued human rights violations, and 3) encourage other universities and companies to do the same.  

We write this letter with a heavy heart. We share your belief that MIT should collaborate widely with people from around the world, and we also recognize that there are plenty of MIT students, staff, and faculty from Saudi Arabia. We wish to emphasize that our objection is entirely to the MBS regime and not to the people of Saudi Arabia. We value the contributions that our Saudi colleagues have made to the MIT global community. One of the things we cherish most about MIT is that it is a place where people come from all around the world and are treated with dignity and respect. Some of us come from authoritarian countries, and we know what it’s like to be targeted, stereotyped, and blamed for the actions of those countries’ leaders. We reject in the strongest possible terms any racism or discrimination against people from Saudi Arabia.

On March 24, 2018, you hosted MBS at MIT and announced a suite of new collaborations between MIT and various Saudi government-controlled entities. These collaborations are on topics that are tremendously important and valuable, such as vaccine research, renewable energy, and medical technology. We know that MIT entered into these agreements with the best of intentions, and that, at the time you met with MBS, many analysts believed that he would be a reformer.  

In the months since you personally met with MBS and accepted funding from entities controlled by his regime, that same regime has continued a campaign of cruelty and evil. We do not use these terms lightly. The MBS regime has continued to target civilians with air strikes in Yemen and to enforce a blockade that restricts civilian access to food and medicine. It has continued its “Guardianship” system, under which women are considered the ward of their husbands, fathers, or sons, and require their approval for things as basic as going to school or getting on a plane. Women in Saudi Arabia who disobey their guardian can be arrested. Since you met with MBS, his regime has arrested several human rights activists and is currently seeking the death penalty for five of them, including Israa al-Ghomgham, who would be the first woman to be executed in Saudi Arabia for human rights activism. Al-Ghomgham’s “crime,” for which MBS wants her to die, is advocating for women’s right to drive and abolition of the guardian system. Being LBGTQ also continues to be a crime in Saudi Arabia — one that is punishable by imprisonment, torture, and execution.

According to current reporting, MBS also ordered the targeting of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and we are deeply disturbed by reports that Saudi officials tortured and murdered him. In a New York Times article about the team that allegedly tortured, killed, and dismembered Khashoggi, we were beyond horrified to see a photograph of yourself shaking hands with MBS on MIT’s campus, while one of the alleged perpetrators, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, looks on in the background. This photo disgraces MIT’s reputation and provides the MBS regime with a veil of normalcy.

The MIT-Saudi collaboration has drawn much criticism, starting from when it was announced. Shortly after MBS’s visit, you responded to a critical editorial from The Tech, writing:

“As a starting point, we strongly favor a strategy of engaging with the world and of opening the doors to collaboration. However, favoring engagement sometimes requires wrestling with complex choices, as when we are invited to work on subjects of important shared interest by parties whose values and actions in other areas we reject. In each case, and repeatedly over time, we make our best assessment and form a judgment: By engaging, do we see a significant opportunity to do some good or drive some progress in areas that matter to our faculty and students?”

Respectfully, MIT has no shared interests with MBS. Engaging with him does less good and drives less progress than using MIT’s voice to strongly condemn him and his government. Although many initially thought him to be a reformer of the kingdom, he has turned out to be a ruthless and illiberal dictator. MBS does not care about vaccine research, improving medical technology, or renewable energy. To him, technology and science aren’t tools to improve the human condition. Instead, much like the superficial reforms he has enacted in Saudi Arabia, they are meant to disguise and distract from underlying problems. The MBS regime has funneled money to MIT, as it has to other universities, think tanks, and media groups, in an effort to legitimize its regime and to buy our silence. We know that you did not intend the MIT-Saudi collaboration to work this way, and we know that you are as personally horrified by MBS and his regime as we are.

We recognize that the funding MIT receives from Saudi Arabia has been channeled towards serious and noble research projects here at MIT. We understand that if MIT were to speak out against human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, there may be financial retaliation, as has been the case in Canada, Germany, and Sweden. However, a renowned institution like MIT must not be threatened into silence. Moreover, with an endowment of over $16 billion on which it managed to generate a staggering investment return of 13.5 percent in 2017, MIT cannot be threatened into silence. It is precisely because of MIT’s financial collaboration with Saudi Arabia that we believe it is so important that MIT’s leadership speak out.

We hope, as we are sure you do too, that the day will come when the women of Saudi Arabia are no longer treated as property of their husbands, when the testimony of women is given equal weight to that of men, when LGBTQ people can live freely without fears of being punished and killed, when citizens can criticize the government without being thrown in prison, when journalists can pursue the truth without fear of their own government hunting them down, and when no parent has to watch their own child starve to death because of an inhumane and disproportionate blockade. When that day does come, we will join you in facilitating and celebrating an MIT-Saudi collaboration. Until then, continued collaboration with the Saudi Arabian government is morally reprehensible.

MIT is respected in every corner of the world and has a history of rising against oppression. As President of MIT, you have an incredible microphone at your disposal. The entire world is listening.

Please, end the silence.

Thank you very much.


Paige H. Bollen, Nicolas Dumas, Andrew L. Halterman, Timothy P. McDonnell, Nina K. McMurry, Aidan Milliff, Kacie Miura, Gabriel Nahmias, Rachel Esplin Odell, Mina E. Pollmann, Blair Read, Stuart Russell, Guillermo Toral, Clara, Vandeweerdt, Lukas Wolters, and seven anonymous supporters

The signatories are graduate students in the MIT Department of Political Science.