Opinion editorial

MIT must cut ties with the Saudi government

The Saudi Arabian government has a long history of human rights violations — MIT has a moral obligation to take a stand

In December of 2018, Associate Provost Richard Lester released a report to the MIT community describing the institute’s ties with Saudi Arabia. It details relationships that range from private donations for scholarship funds for Saudi students to research sponsorships by state-owned institutions, ultimately recommending that the university should not sever any ties with the country. The report was prompted by the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for the Washington Post and outspoken critic of the Saudi government, which has drawn international attention to the Saudi regime’s human rights violations as well as its extensive ties with American institutions. In the three months since, pressure has mounted on governments, businesses, and universities to reevaluate their relationships with the country, and it is not difficult to understand why  — the Saudi Arabian government has an exceptionally egregious human rights record that extends far beyond Khashoggi’s murder.

The regime has a long history of limiting freedom of speech and prosecuting dissidents, recently arresting and torturing the activists who campaigned for women’s right to drive. Its guardianship system legally encodes women as second-class citizens, as they are often required to obtain the consent of their male guardians to enroll in schools, work a paid job, obtain state identification documents, and get married. Homosexuality is punishable by death, and the government frequently arrests people who attend gay weddings.

Most notably, it has played a central role in creating the devastation in Yemen. Tens of thousands of people have been killed already by airstrikes and the famine, and millions have been displaced. The UN called Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world last April and more recently stated it is on the brink of becoming the worst famine in a century, as 12 to 13 million civilians are at risk of starvation. It is important to recognize that this devastation is not simply a natural and necessary byproduct of war (if such a thing exists), but rather part of Saudi Arabia’s military strategy to inflict as much harm as possible. The Saudi coalition purposefully targets civilian sites, including schools, hospitals, mosques, weddings, and funerals. It has deliberately created and sustained a famine by destroying food and water infrastructure, including farms, markets, roads, and fishing boats, as well as imposing strict import restrictions and periodic blockades that prevent resources from reaching the country — a move that is particularly devastating for a country that is dependent on imports for 90 percent of its food. In addition to being absolutely reprehensible from a moral point-of-view, deliberately targeting civilian populations and intentionally using of starvation as a method of warfare are both considered war crimes under international humanitarian law.

All major governments, businesses, and organizations are imperfect in some way or another, but there are very few modern entities that MIT actively engages with that are more abhorrent than the Saudi government. Collaborating with the Saudi government sends the signal to the rest of the world that the university is willing to work with a regime that is actively involved in killing and suppressing millions — that it shares common goals and values with an entity that has consistently demonstrated hatred towards women, LGBTQ individuals, and religious minorities. Thus, we call on MIT to 1) form an independent committee with students and non-administrative faculty members to deeply assess each relationship on a case-by-case basis, 2) cut ties with the Saudi government as well as all Saudi organizations that are closely associated with the government, and 3) release a statement directly condemning the human rights violations of the Saudi Arabian government.

There are several organizations with which MIT currently or previously partnered that are directly connected with the Saudi government, and MIT undoubtedly should not hold ties with these organizations. Examples include Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) personal philanthropic foundation MiSK, a former member company of the Media Lab, as well as state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, national science agency and laboratory KACST, and majority-publicly-owned chemical producer SABIC, all of which currently hold ties with MIT. The associate provost’s report’s claim that none of these organizations have any control over the Saudi government’s actions is misleading, as these organizations are largely controlled by the same people who are responsible for the country’s consistent human rights violations, and the state-run companies act as the government’s main source of revenue. Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world, is entirely state-owned and was placed under direct control of a branch of the royal family in 2015, with MBS serving as the chair of its top decision-making body. Further, it serves as the country’s largest source of income and accounted for 63 percent of the government’s revenue in 2017, thus playing a central role in financing government initiatives like fighting the war in Yemen. As these state-owned institutions are the largest Saudi Arabian sources of sponsored research funding at MIT, ending our partnerships with them would serve as a central starting point for the broader reform of our relationship with the country.

Some who defend MIT’s current position have pointed to the existence of programs dedicated to helping students or funded by private organizations as reasons not to cut ties with Saudi Arabia. It is of course important that any actions taken by the university are directed towards the government of Saudi Arabia rather than the people, but the existence of blurrier edge cases should not be reason for complete inaction. For this reason, it would be valuable for MIT to create a committee that is dedicated to more deeply analyzing each of the relationships between MIT and Saudi Arabia. Such a committee should include students and non-administrative faculty members — any decision regarding large-scale financial partnerships that is made behind closed doors is far more likely to reflect the beliefs and values of administrators than the beliefs and values of the general public.

The Lester report as it stands is insufficient in analyzing many of these edge cases, as it lacks many important pieces of information, such as the existence of any ties between private organizations and the government, the amount of money involved with each partnership or donation, the substance of the partnerships with the Saudi Arabian universities, and the number of Saudi students at MIT as part of scholarship initiatives. Much of this information is readily available to MIT administrators and can be found online with some digging (such as the $25 million figure associated with the research partnership MIT set up with state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco earlier this year). If the partnerships between MIT and Saudi Arabia are truly as valuable as the administrators would like to claim, then there is hardly a good reason for Lester to omit such information from the report — unless, of course, the administration is afraid of public backlash.

There is great potential for MIT to take actions that serve as a model for other universities as well as the federal government to follow. Any action taken by a well-known university like MIT occurs under the scrutiny of the public media, which is why MBS’s visit to campus, MIT’s decision to reassess relations, and its report to maintain ties have all received considerable news coverage already. The act of cutting ties or even the much simpler act of releasing a statement condemning Saudi Arabia would serve as a substantial challenge to the Saudi government and could place pressure on other universities and institutions to follow suit. Given that the Saudi government is heavily reliant on the U.S. government as well as American universities, companies, and defense contractors for credibility, military assistance, and financial gain, actions taken by entities within the U.S. can have significant impacts.

The South African apartheid divestment movement serves as a useful example of the power that a small number of universities can have in creating a domino effect of institutional change. Although only a handful of companies and universities, such as Hampshire College and Columbia University, divested in the early stages of the movement, the number of universities that followed their lead and similarly divested increased substantially in the years after, jumping to 53 in 1985 and 155 in 1988. Looking back at this history 40 years later, it is easy to feel discomfort at the idea of MIT holding close financial ties with such an unquestionably repressive regime — however, the students critiquing apartheid back then faced much of the same pushback as ones critiquing Saudi Arabia do today, and consequently, MIT never ended up divesting. This time around, MIT should make the more morally sound decision of cutting its ties with the Saudi government.

The current political climate surrounding Saudi Arabia provides an opening for MIT to make a similarly large impact, as Khashoggi’s murder has placed the Saudi regime’s human rights violations in the international spotlight. Consequently, several companies have taken moves to distance themselves from the Saudi government, the Senate has passed a resolution demanding Trump end U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia, and the UN has begun peace talks over Yemen. Some students and faculty at MIT and other universities have also spoken up, but thus far, the administrators at these universities have done very little in taking a stand against the Saudi regime. Doing so is not outside the realm of possibility — many universities already set boundaries on the types of institutions that they are willing to take money from, such as the many public health schools that have pledged not to take funding from the tobacco industry.

But irrespective of the eventual actions of other universities or institutions, MIT still has the same moral obligation to sever relations with the Saudi government. In order for MIT to truly call itself a progressive force for change in the world, it must be willing to take a stand against deeply problematic actors. The Saudi Arabian government is clearly such an actor, and it continues to commit abhorrent human rights violations. By turning a blind eye, MIT loses the credibility of its mission statement of serving the nation and the world.


The commenting period for Associate Provost Richard Lester’s report ends on Jan. 15. Lester will submit all comments alongside the report to President Rafael Reif for review after that date. If you would like to submit a comment, please email it to comments-ksareview@mit.edu. If you would further like the comment to be published as a letter to the editor in The Tech, please email it to letters@the-tech.mit.edu. If you cannot finish writing a comment before that date, please still submit it after.

Editorials are the official opinion of The Tech. They are written by the Editorial Board, which consists of Editor in Chief Emma Bingham, Executive Editor Patrick Wahl, Contributing Editor Vivian Zhong, and Opinion Editors Steven Truong and Fiona Chen.