Associate Provost Richard Lester recommends against termination of existing relationships with Saudi Arabia

Report follows reassessment of MIT-Saudi ties sparked by Khashoggi’s death

Associate Provost Richard Lester PhD ’80, who advises the administration on international activities, is recommending against the termination of any existing engagement with Saudi private or government-funded sponsors and organizations, according to a preliminary copy of his report emailed to The Tech Wednesday.

President L. Rafael Reif asked Lester to conduct a reassessment of MIT’s Institute-level engagements with Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The reassessment was announced in a letter to the faculty Oct. 15.

The CIA has since concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who visited MIT in March, ordered the killing of Khashoggi.

As of the publication of this article, Lester’s report has been sent to the MIT community, and the contents are open for comment through mid-January. Then, Lester will summarize the feedback and forward it to Reif, who will make the final decision on how to proceed, Lester explained in an interview with The Tech Wednesday.

The recommendations highlighted three government and government-backed organizations that MIT has relationships with: the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, a government agency with whom MIT founded the Center for Complex Engineering Systems; Saudi Aramco, a state-owned oil company and a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative; and SABIC, a majority state-owned company and the sponsor of a yearlong research agreement with MIT signed during Mohammed bin Salman’s visit.

There is no evidence to suggest that these organizations were involved in Khashoggi's murder, the report said, and they are unlikely to have any control over the Saudi government’s repressive domestic policies or participation in the Yemeni civil war, two other issues acknowledged in the report.

The cessation of MIT’s engagement would probably fail to have a “meaningful ameliorative effect” on those actions, the report continued.  

If individual principal investigators do not wish to continue their projects with Saudi partners, MIT should work with them to “minimize the resulting disruption,” especially to students, the report added.

The report also recommended against the termination of existing engagements with private Saudi donors and sponsors.

Additional opportunities for research or educational relationships with Saudi entities that may arise in the future should continue to be given consideration, as long as they comply with “MIT’s policies and principles and relevant law and regulations,” the report said.

The report recommended, however, that MIT refrain from “large overseas engagements” in Saudi Arabia until conditions there change significantly from the status quo, which the report described to include “cultural norms, laws, and policies” that are “biased against women, against certain religious groups, and against groups based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

A fifth recommendation affirmed that MIT welcomes Saudi students and researchers. Lester emphasized in the interview that part of his role is to ensure that Saudis on campus are valued and not subject to any type of discrimination or action against them.

“Appropriate Saudi visitors” will continue to be welcomed on campus as well, the report said.

Maher Mutreb, who is part of a group of Saudi agents identified as having played a leading role in Khashoggi’s murder, would be an example of an unwelcome visitor, Lester said in the interview. Mutreb was part of Mohammed bin Salman’s entourage during the latter’s visit to MIT, and his presence on campus retrospectively feels like a “violation of our space,” Lester said.

As for Mohammed bin Salman himself, Lester did not explicitly say when asked whether he would be unwelcome. “I think it’s unlikely that he would be willing to come under the conditions that we would likely want to apply,” Lester said. “But that’s pure speculation.”

Reflecting on the outcome of the reassessment, Lester said, “We’ve had for many years — decades even — collaborations with good people in Saudi Arabia who are trying to do good things. … What this report says is that we should not walk away from these people despite the actions of people in their government.”

Lester noted in his report that some have wondered why Khashoggi’s death in particular triggered the reassessment when criticism of Saudi Arabia has been ongoing.

“One reason for conducting this review now is that MIT had previously been considering a significant expansion of our relationships with the Kingdom,” the report said.

This was due to a view that Saudi Arabia was becoming more progressive, and thus expanding engagement might aid in this process positively. But Khashoggi’s murder has “deflated many of those hopes,” the report continued.

The particulars of this incident, namely the “brazenness, brutality, and contempt for international opinion” the Saudi government has exhibited, also contributed to its significance.

As part of his review, Lester sought input from a “broad range” of MIT faculty, student, staff, and alumni, according to the report.

Around 25 to 50 faculty members responded to his request for comment, Lester said in the interview. Lester also said he reached out to individuals who were likely to have views on the issue, such as faculty involved in relevant projects, Saudi students, and experts on the region.

The contents of these conversations are confidential, but several students and faculty members have made their opinions known through public channels in recent weeks.

Lester has “reported that MIT will investigate these agreements, certainly a necessary step, which should have been taken before the agreements were made,” Professors Nazli Choucri, Jonathan King, and Nasser Rabbat wrote in an editorial in the November/December Issue of the faculty newsletter.

“However, having a committee constituted by the administration, to investigate the administration’s actions, is clearly not adequate. We need a committee that is independent of the administration,” the editorial continued.

More than twenty political science graduate students signed a letter to President Reif published in The Tech Oct. 25, which called for Reif to cut MIT’s ties with Saudi Arabia.

“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,” the letter said. “However, a renowned institution like MIT must not be threatened into silence.”

Data on the financial scope of MIT’s engagements with Saudi Arabia were considered over the course of the reassessment, Lester said, but financial considerations did not “loom large” over the recommendations.

According to the table included at the end of the report, sponsored research programs make up 52 percent of “current MIT activities enabled by Saudi collaborations and financial support.”

Aramco, the largest funder in this category, has been contributing around $5 million a year for the last five years, which accounts for “somewhere between a half and a lot” of the total operating funding MIT receives from Saudi sources, Lester said. (Lester did not specify the exact percentages to respect the confidentiality of some gifts.)

Another 44 percent is labeled “gift-enabled activities.” This includes the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which is funded by the organization of Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ’78, a Saudi businessman and philanthropist.

The amount of sponsored program funding MIT receives from Saudi Arabia represents a very small fraction of the Institute’s total operating budget — less than 0.3 percent, Lester noted in an email to The Tech.