Professors reframe studies of Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s death

The late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy on March 21, 2018. via Flickr

Tufts professors are re-examining their application of Saudi Arabia in academic coursework following last month’s killing of Saudi expatriate and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. According to an Oct. 25 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, multiple New England universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Babson College and Harvard University, are reconsidering or are being pressured to reconsider their relationship with the Kingdom.

Ibrahim Warde, adjunct professor of international business at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, has written extensively about the financial relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. According to Warde, who also serves as director of Fletcher’s Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, Khashoggi had agreed to speak at a Fares Center event just days before his disappearance.

“[Khashoggi is] an interesting person because he was very closely connected to the royal family,” Warde said. “At the same time, he’s been, especially in the last couple of years, quite a critic of the regime.”

Warde noted that Khashoggi tied together many of the themes in his Islamic politics course at Fletcher, which focuses on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Khashoggi was quite central to all of those issues because one of the criticisms by the Saudi press and the regime in general was that [Khashoggi] was too close to the Muslim Brothers,” he said.

Warde added that, in the spring, he’ll be teaching courses that feature Saudi Arabia, including one on Islamic finance and one on political economy and business in the Islamic world.

“A lot of students who take the [courses] are very interested — either from a business perspective or a political perspective — in what’s happening in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Warde noted that he still hopes to bring a journalist and dissident of the Saudi regime to the Fares Center later this academic year, while also organizing events that discuss the status of Saudi women and the Kingdom’s relationship to the United States.

“I’m still unsure about whether the focus is going to be on this PR war or on the question of Saudi money,” Warde said. “One problem in D.C. is that a number of potential speakers I talked to were recipients of money.”

Although many universities are reexamining their financial ties to Saudi Arabia, Warde does not believe that Khashoggi’s death will have a major impact on his research since he has been critical of the regime and, unlike many scholars, of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

“I’m not … with this chorus of great support for [the crown prince],” Warde said. “I’ve always been a skeptic.”

Fellow Tufts faculty members commented on the role that Saudi Arabia has and will play in their academic work. Hugh Roberts, the Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History, teaches a spring-semester course on the Middle East and North Africa since World War I, which discusses the current state of affairs in the Kingdom.

“[The] course takes the story up to … the Arab Spring,” Roberts said. “Saudi Arabia has been a player in those events as have other Gulf countries — Qatar, in particular, [and] the [United Arab] Emirates. They’re all discussed as players in the events that had as their main theater: Egypt, Syria, Libya and so on.”

Roberts noted that while the course does not spend a lot of time on the various Gulf countries, he anticipates discussing Khashoggi’s death with his students next semester.

Professor of Political Science Malik Mufti is teaching a course on Turkish foreign policy this semester and anticipates that Khashoggi’s death will come up in discussions about the Turkish-Saudi rivalry. Mufti believes that Khashoggi may also be mentioned in his other course this semester, Comparative Politics of the Middle East, when the class turns to the region’s authoritarian bent since the Arab Spring and discusses Saudi Arabia’s role in this trend.

“Next semester, when I teach US Foreign Policy in the Middle East, naturally the US-Saudi relationship will play a prominent role in our readings and discussions, so I’m sure this debacle will come up once again,” Mufti told the Daily in an email.

As a scholar of the Middle East and North Africa, Roberts is familiar with the region’s history of violence and grim events. Nonetheless, he noted that Khashoggi’s death is unusual in that he was killed in the Saudi regime’s own consulate in Ankara, Turkey.

“I’m not sure that we really understand it yet,” Roberts said. “It’s unusual to do something this reckless.”

Roberts also lamented the number of research centers in English-speaking regions that are funded by Gulf countries.

“I’ve long personally regretted the extent to which Middle [Eastern] studies in the English-speaking world has allowed itself to become dependent on relationships with the Gulf monarchies,” he said. “There are named chairs endowed with Gulf money. I think that this has had a bad effect on Middle Eastern studies.”

Warde is interested to see how the state of Saudi politics evolves following Khashoggi’s death. There are multiple possibilities, he said, including a change in successor to the Saudi throne from Mohammad bin Salman.

“And then there’s the bigger cover-up story,” Warde said. “There have been some attempts at pretending it was a rogue operation, which sounds very dubious.”

According to an Oct. 30 article from the Associated Press, Tufts’ records show that the university has received about $42 million from Saudi Arabia, including $2.9 million from the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, commonly referred to as Saudi Aramco.

Tufts’ Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins noted that the university remains committed to maintaining relationships with Saudi individuals and organizations to advance global health-related causes.

“Tufts has a deep commitment to global relations and has developed many educational and research relationships around the world to share knowledge and solve local and global challenges,” Collins told the Daily in an email. “Our collaborations have provided Saudi students with access to education, training and research experience in healthcare and the life sciences. As we continue to follow closely the deeply concerning news, we remain committed to global engagement and the power of educational and research collaboration to make a positive difference in the world.”


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