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MIT Report Recommends Against Cutting School's Ties With Saudi Arabia

CAMBRIDGE (AP) — The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has no "compelling case" to cut ties with Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but it's unlikely to pursue an expansion of its work in the kingdom, according a to a report released by the school Thursday.

The school began reviewing its relationships with Saudi Arabia in October amid a global uproar over Khashoggi's killing. MIT is among dozens of U.S. universities that accept funding from the Saudi government, but it has stood out for its close relationship with the country's national oil company and other government-owned institutions.

Read The Report (PDF)

Associate Provost Richard Lester, who led the review, criticized Saudi Arabia's role in the killing, along with its "repressive policies" in other areas, but he said none of the institutions MIT works with had any role in Khashoggi's death. Cutting ties would curb important research, he said, while doing nothing to fix the country's problems.

"These organizations are supporting important research and activities at MIT on terms that honor our principles and comply with our policies," he said. "They are also providing critical resources to support the education of outstanding Saudi students and women scientists and engineers, who will surely be in the vanguard of social change in that country."

Still, Lester said the killing has likely put an end to earlier discussions about a major expansion of the school's work in Saudi Arabia. In previous conversations, he said, some at MIT have suggested that by building wider ties, the institute could help steer the kingdom toward more progressive policies.

"The Khashoggi murder has deflated many of those hopes," Lester wrote.

The report revealed what Lester called a "disturbing" connection between the Khashoggi murder and MIT's campus. When Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the school in March, his entourage included Maher Mutreb, who was later identified by the U.S. government as one of 17 Saudis who organized and carried out the killing of the Washington Post columnist.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

"This individual had engaged with members of the MIT community at that time — an unwelcome and unsettling intrusion into our space, even though evident only in retrospect," Lester wrote.

His report suggests that the school should welcome only "appropriate" Saudi visitors in the future, but does not elaborate on the recommendation.

Lester's report was based on input from students, faculty and alumni, along with outside experts on Saudi Arabia. It now goes to MIT President Rafael Reif, who called for the review, and will make a final decision.

Since the killing, some on campus have pushed for an end to all financial ties with the kingdom. In an open letter in October, more than 20 graduate students in political science urged MIT leaders to take a stand against Saudi Arabia. Along with the murder, they pointed to the kingdom's alleged human rights abuses in neighboring Yemen and against women in its own country.

"MIT's continued collaboration with the Saudi government sends the message that human rights violations can be overlooked in favor of financial considerations," the letter said.

But Lester said others pushed just as strongly for collaboration. If individual researchers want to back out of projects with the kingdom, he said, the school will help arrange it without disrupting the work.

The report didn't detail how much MIT receives from Saudi sources, but it said 52 percent has covered "sponsored research" over the last three years, primarily from state-owned institutions like Saudi Aramco, the kingdom's national oil company; SABIC, a national chemical company; and the King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, a research center.

Meanwhile, 44 percent came from private and corporate donors, and another 4 percent came from a variety of smaller Saudi-funded programs.

A previous Associated Press analysis of federal data found that MIT is among 37 U.S. universities that received $350 million from the Saudi government over the last decade. Much of that came through a scholarship program that covers tuition for Saudi students in the U.S., but at least $62 million came from contracts and gifts from Saudi-owned sources.

MIT specifically has received at least $4 million from Saudi Aramco, the data showed, along with $73 million in private donations from Mohammed Abdul Jameel, a Saudi businessman who graduated from MIT in 1978 and supports research in areas including poverty and education.

Besides MIT, few other schools said they were reviewing their ties to Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi's murder. Several schools defended their work with the country, including the University of California, Berkeley, which has a $6 million contract to develop nanomaterials that can be used to support renewable energy.

(© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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