MIT and the Saudis

Recent email from the MIT President:

Last October, following the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, I asked Associate Provost Richard Lester, who oversees MIT’s international activities, to reassess MIT engagements with Saudi entities.

The report explores the full range of competing factors to consider, including faculty autonomy, the social and scientific value of the work we undertake with Saudi people and entities, the challenge of working in a nation so out of step with our commitment to inclusion and free expression, and our community’s deep sense of revulsion at actions of the Saudi regime.

Ultimately, the report concludes that if MIT faculty wish to continue their current engagements with colleagues, students, and public and private research sponsors in Saudi Arabia, they should be free to do so, as long as these projects remain consistent with MIT policies and procedures and US laws and regulations.

Nothing of substance changes, in other words. In the long run, however, virtue as defined by MIT will prevail:

The present moment is testing that position. When I agreed to host the Saudi state delegation at MIT last spring, I shared the hope of many in the US and around the world that the visit and official engagement were an important part of an ongoing process of reform and modernization.

Saudi Arabia needs to be “reformed” and modernized, in MIT’s official opinion. It is just a temporary setback that some of these Saudi state officials went straight from learning about MIT’s commitment to inclusion and free expression to planning the murder of the unfortunate Mr. Khashoggi?

Saudi Arabia faces an unusual demographic moment: More than half of Saudi citizens are younger than 30

How is this relevant to the question of whether MIT works with governments that assassinate the inconvenient? The killing of Mr. Khashoggi should be ignored because he was 59 years old and can be readily replaced by folks who are half his age? (And his intended bride, for whom he ran the risk of entering the Saudi consulate to gather some divorce documents (BBC), was 36 years old, so also outside of the demographic that MIT considers important.) The killing of Mr. Khashoggi would have to be taken a lot more seriously if the median age in Saudi Arabia were 40 (as it is in Singapore)?

Regardless of their age, it turns out that some Saudis are “worthy” because they share MIT’s principles (the others are “worthless”?):

I hope we can respond to present circumstances in a way that does not suddenly reject, abandon or isolate worthy Saudi people who share our principles and are doing good work for themselves, their society and the world, particularly if MIT faculty wish to continue the engagement. … Are there further steps we can take to make sure that our engagements are not only in tune with but advance MIT’s values, including equality and free expression?

One of MIT’s principles, as previously articulated by President Reif, is to employ both a “Director and Assistant Director of LGBTQ Services”. So this puts MIT principles at odds with the law in Saudi Arabia (though maybe not the reality, according to this Atlantic article, which says “Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there.”) The only “worthy” Saudi people, therefore, are those who reject traditional Islamic belief and align themselves with what a non-Muslim or apostate MIT administrator might believe? (speaking of apostasy, it is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia)

Is this letter essentially saying that coastal American values are superior to Saudi values as embodied in their laws? MIT must labor under a White Man’s Burden to engage with the Saudis until they agree to adopt our values? How is that consistent with a commitment to inclusion?


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