Why Are US Colleges Collaborating With Saudi Arabia?

Why Are US Colleges Collaborating With Saudi Arabia?

Why Are US Colleges Collaborating With Saudi Arabia?

Harvard, Georgetown, Yale Law School, UNH—all have taken money from the Saudi government or businessmen allied with it.


Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has come to the United States for a two-week visit and met with President Trump on Tuesday. Acclaimed by Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman as the spirit of the Arab Spring, MBS, as he is often called, is often described as a “reformer.” Unfortunately, there is the little matter of his Yemen war. He arrived just when Bernie Sanders’s bill to end US participation in that criminal adventure is slated for a Senate vote.

I’ve seen plenty on the Internet about the horrors in Yemen, but the one that got to me most recently was an Al Jazeera video of people eating food from a garbage dump, where they are competing for food with masses of flies. This is what the Saudis and the United States have brought to Yemen.

An early November story in The New York Times was headlined “Saudi Money Fuels the Tech Industry. It’s Time to Ask Why.” It talked about all the tech companies like Uber, Lyft, and Twitter that have taken investments from the Saudi government and private Saudi businessmen allied with the government, noting that the Saudi kingdom has an “abysmal record with human rights groups.” If businesses’ ethics can be challenged, then why not US colleges that take Saudi money?

Harvard and Georgetown each received $20 million from a Saudi prince back in 2005 to foster “Islamic studies.” Georgetown used the money to fund its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which it renamed the HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Harvard has a Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of Saudi King Salman, is one of the richest men in the world and has been at the top of the Saudi power structure for years. Last November he was arrested in the so-called corruption crackdown by MBS and was only let out in January after reportedly forking over some $6 billion.

The Saudi regime’s terrible human-rights record did not prevent Harvard and Georgetown from accepting the money. When they did so, Saudi Arabia’s internal repression was just as intense as today, but its foreign military adventures were not so blatant or deadly. That has changed. In 2011 Saudi tanks were sent into Bahrain to crush that country’s “spring,” and then in 2015 the Saudis started their grisly war against Yemen. Two Connecticut colleges started major programs with the Saudi establishment after those notorious interventions.

In 2015, Saudi businessman Abdallah S. Kamel announced he was giving Yale Law School $10 million for the study of Islamic law and civilization. Kamel is the chief executive of the Dallah Albaraka Group, LLC. This gigantic holding company operates in a score of industries, from real estate to banking to media. Ties to the Saudi government are unclear, though it has profited from extensive government contracts in the past.

Beyond that, the Albaraka Group has some outrageous associations. Its media group ART (Arab Radio and Television Network) has a station, Iqraa, that broadcast a program by Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who the US government believes was a close associate of Osama bin Laden. Al-Zindani, a Yemeni national and a known Al Qaeda operative, was listed in 2004 by the US Treasury Department as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” and as one of bin Laden’s spiritual leaders. Noted Saudi scholar and dissident Ali Al Ahmed told me, “Al-Zindani was on Iqraa TV with a series called Proofs of Faith years after he was named on the terrorist list.” Iqraa also advertised as one of its “stars” one Mohamad al-Arefe, an extremist Wahhabi preacher who was accused, by British authorities among others, of radicalizing youth in jihadist activity. He was banned several years ago from entering Britain or Switzerland.

Omar al-Bayoumi was another employee of Kamel’s with troubling connections. According to the Senate/House Intelligence Committee Investigation into 9/11, Bayoumi helped two of the 9/11 hijackers after they arrived in Los Angeles in early 2000, giving them cash, helping them to pay for an apartment, and getting a friend to help them arrange to take flying lessons. Bayoumi was mentioned prominently in the “28 pages” of the Joint Inquiry Senate/House Intelligence Committee into 9/11 (the 28 pages were finally released in 2016). He worked for Kamel’s Dallah Avco company (page 425 of the full report). The report notes that Bayoumi gave “substantial assistance” (page 416) to the two Saudis who took part in the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 77, which was crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. Bayoumi, who left the United States a month before the 9/11 attacks, was arrested and interviewed in the UK but denied he was involved in the plot, claiming his aid to the two terrorists was an innocent effort to assist fellow Saudis. Scotland Yard let him go.

Neither these unsettling connections nor the Saudi government bombing and siege of Yemen deterred Yale University Law School from accepting Kamel’s money. The Yale Center is up and running with seminars and conferences. None appear to be concerned with what Islamic law may say about atrocities in Yemen or whether Islamic law justifies the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Abdallah Kamel is the son of Saleh Abdullah Kamel, the multibillionaire founder and chairman of the Dallah Albaraka Group. The elder Kamel was also arrested in November in Prince Salman’s “anti-corruption” purge. It’s kind of hard to think of Crown Prince Salman as a model of righteous probity, though, given that he owns the most expensive private home in the world as well as a $500 million yacht, and last year paid $450 million for a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

Then there is the case of the University of New Haven, which in 2016 started an academic program with a Saudi police college. A letter signed by nearly 50 writers, professors, and human-rights activists last September called for UNH to close down its BA program in security studies at King Fahd Security College (KFSC) in Saudi Arabia. They argued that criminal-justice and forensic-science skills transferred by UNH to Saudi Arabia would be used to hunt down democratic dissidents, women standing up for their rights, and those not following government-mandated religious practices. The writers also noted that police techniques developed at UNH would be used against people accused of “witchcraft,” “apostasy,” and “homosexuality,” all of which are serious crimes in Saudi Arabia.

The letter, an effort of the Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance (disclaimer: I am active in the coalition on behalf of our Middle East committee), was sent to UNH president Steven Kaplan; to Mario Thomas Gaboury, dean of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences; and to the UNH Board of Governors. Among the signers are writers Chris Hedges, Adam Hochschild, and Katha Pollitt; Professors J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Nader Hashemi, Johnny E. Williams, and Ibrahim Imam; and activists Medea Benjamin, Robert Naiman, and Ali Al Ahmed. Medical doctors among the signers include Margaret Flowers, Azmat Husain, Ali R. Moosvi, and Bishop John Selders of Moral Monday CT.

The coalition was founded in New York City in 2015 to protest US cooperation and arms sales to the Saudi absolute monarchy. Its founding groups were CODEPINK, the Middle East Crisis Committee (CT), Massachusetts Peace Action, and the Institute for Gulf Affairs. 

The BA program at the KFSC is up and running. In February of 2017, UNH president Kaplan said, “We are excited to put the University of New Haven’s world-renowned programs in criminal justice, national security, and forensic science studies at the service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s next generation of security professionals,” according to the UNH student newspaper The Charger Bulletin.

No answer to the September protest letter came from UNH officials, though a short statement was given to the New Haven Register. A spokesperson for the university claimed its program had “no coursework on any of the topics mentioned in the letter.” A follow-up letter from the coalition to UNH asking for details about its coursework and proposing that the university and the coalition hold a joint forum on the UNH-Saudi program went unanswered. The university has not replied to the charge that UNH was wrong to collaborate with Saudi Arabia while it was brutally attacking Yemen.

So here we are in 2018. The Saudis rang it in by bombing the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, killing 23 people. Last year, Saudi Arabia executed over 130 of its own citizens. Human-rights activists languish in prisons, and citizens who follow the wrong variant of Islam face discrimination and persecution. Last November, Saudi Arabia’s military closed all of Yemen’s ports. The UN’s under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lawcock, warned reporters outside the Security Council that there would be “millions of victims” from the blockade, and Save the Children predicted that more than 50,000 Yemeni children would die by the end of last year of starvation and disease resulting from the war. After several weeks of humanitarian outrage, the Saudis “eased” the blockade. So millions didn’t die. People were only reduced to eating from garbage dumps.

Should colleges just turn their back on all of this? Is their only responsibility to gobble up as many gifts and grants as they can, and ignore the stench of blood on the hands of donors? Of course not, but college administrators will continue to take dirty money until the public and students and faculty raise a cry of outrage.

Students could start things off by attending or leading protests when the crown prince arrives in their area. He should be easy to spot. Look for a motorcade of 40 or 50 Mercedes.

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