Emory, Rethink Saudi Ties

Emory’s ties to Saudi Arabia raise an important question: to what extent should universities factor their moral values into the partnerships they pursue?   

Emory has decided to maintain its partnerships with five Saudi Arabian academic institutions in spite of the kingdom’s alleged involvement in the killing of journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.

While reading the Wheel’s news article on Emory’s decision, I was reminded of a Foreign Affairs piece I recently read on the need for greater “moral clarity” in American foreign policy. Historian and foreign-policy commentator Robert Kagan wrote, “American foreign policy should be informed with a clear moral purpose, based on the understanding that its moral goals and its fundamental national interests are almost always in harmony.”

Kagan’s article was written in 1996, and as the U.S.’s continuous history of questionable alliances has demonstrated, Kagan’s hope for prioritizing morals in foreign policy decisions seems slightly idealistic. Yet the principle that a nation must be guided by moral purpose over all other extrinsic or superficial motivators, is nevertheless invaluable. It’s better to strive for an ideal that may not be reached than to blindly settle for failure.

Kagan’s statement is just as applicable to Emory’s choices of partnerships as it is to U.S. foreign policy. Based on the knowledge that a university’s moral goals and strategic interests are in harmony, Emory’s partnerships with companies and countries must too be informed “with a clear moral purpose.”

The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education gave Emory’s free speech code a “green light” rating, denoting that the school’s policies fully protect all forms of free speech. Yet in Saudi Arabia, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for simply criticizing the Saudi government in 2015; another case in a pool of brutally oppressive responses to the exercise of free speech. The Carter Center, one of Emory’s closest partners, was specifically established to “enhance freedom and democracy.” However, Saudi Arabia, one of the Carter Center’s foreign government donors, has thrown human-rights activists in jail and continues to reign terror on the Yemeni people, forcing them to starvation.

Emory is among dozens of American universities with ties to Saudi Arabia. The Associated Press found that in the past decade alone, U.S. colleges and universities have received at least $354 million from the Saudi government or from institutions it controls. George Washington University (D.C.) received the largest sum of money at $70 million, while ties with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard (Mass.) and other prominent universities follow closely, although their relationships are less clear. Some of those universities are receiving money directly from the Saudi government itself rather than through its entities; Emory’s Saudi ties, however, are especially complex.

While Emory does not receive donations directly from the Saudi government, its partnerships with five academic institutions funded by the Saudi government are used to support sponsorships for Saudi students to attend Rollins School of Public Health, the School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences.

According to the 2017 U.S. Foreign Gift and Contract Report, Emory received over $16 million from the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM) and the Medical College of Jazan University between 2011 and 2014. I find nothing inherently wrong with giving Saudi students the opportunity to come to a free, democratic country, gain a stellar education and be exposed to diversity and freedoms that will allow them to expand their perspectives.

It’s crucial to differentiate between a country’s actions and individuals’ actions. It is, therefore, easy to oppose straightforward financial partnerships with a nation’s government, but when a nation is funding programs that are in the service of individuals, those lines become blurred. Wouldn’t cutting institutions like the King Abdullah Fellowship Program hurt innocent individuals more than it would contribute to sending a message to the Saudi government?

Unsure of the exact answer to that question, I advocate for Emory administrators not to cut ties completely, but to seriously question how its partnerships reflect on the University’s commitment to its morals and thus to reconsider its Saudi partnerships.

Ultimately, the Saudi government is funding these institutions. If we are indirectly receiving money from the Saudi government, shouldn’t we at least stop to ask what it reveals about our values when we as a university choose to work with programs backed by a nation with one of the worst human rights records in the world?

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only problematic nation with which Emory has ties. Emory’s School of Law, College of Arts and Sciences and Global Health Institute also have connections to several institutions indirectly supported by the Chinese government, which is responsible for its own troubling share of human rights abuses. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, however, China hasn’t garnered as much recent attention for its human rights abuses. The atrocious and highly publicized news of Khashoggi’s death implores us to question our ties specifically to Saudi Arabia at this time and, in doing so, we may gain clarity as to what may or may not be worth sacrificing our morals.

Here at Emory, we’re taught to think critically and to never be afraid to question the status quo. I kindly ask our administrators to do the same: let’s hold onto the morals we claim to stand for and start questioning whether our partnerships with Saudi Arabian programs send the right message.