In mid-December, Georgetown and Harvard universities announced their acceptance of twin $20 million gifts from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for programs in Islamic studies. Prince Alwaleed described the purpose of his gifts as “bridging the gap between East and West,” in the interest, of course, of “peace and tolerance.” In recognition of the prince’s generosity, Georgetown renamed its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal center for Muslim-Christian Understanding; Harvard will create a new Islamic studies program in his honor. After submitting two proposals for the grants, Yale was denied in the final selection round. The prince refused to clarify, telling the New York Times: “Please. Keep the other universities out. I’d rather not embarrass them.”
The prince’s gifts have proved somewhat controversial. Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) immediately called on the universities to return the donations: “August institutions like Harvard University and Georgetown University should not be accepting gifts from a family that bankrolls terrorist organizations.” In accepting the gifts, Harvard and Georgetown overcame the sense of propriety that then-Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani expressed when he returned Alwaleed’s $10 million donation to help rebuild the Twin Towers after Sept. 11. Prince Alwaleed had intimated that America’s support of Israel led to the terrorist attacks. Such assertions, Giuliani contended, were “not only wrong” but “part of the problem.” Alwaleed didn’t take Giuliani’s statement at face value; “Jewish pressures,” he claimed, were the insidious forces behind the rejection of the gift.
Perhaps Alwaleed’s animus toward the instruments of “Jewish pressure” explains some of his less-advertised investments — among them, a $27 million contribution to a Saudi government telethon that raised more than $100 million for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Both the Middle East Media Research Institute’s Steven Stalinsky and columnist Diana West have called attention to the prince’s co-ownership of the Saudi ART TV network that, under Alwaleed’s watch, aired not only the aforementioned telethon but also the fundraiser “Jihad in Palestine,” which encouraged Muslims to triumph over the West through suicide bombings and “slitting of throats and shattering skulls.”
There is little evidence in the public record of Prince Alwaleed’s professed desire to bridge gaps or strive for “peace and tolerance.” Osama bin Laden called for financial jihad against the United States; according to terrorism expert Rachel Ehrenfeld, Prince Alwaleed told Arab News shortly thereafter that Arabs could exert influence over U.S. decision makers by “unit[ing] through economic interests.”
It is unlikely that the prince’s aspirations in academia differ substantially from those in the policy realm. Middle East scholar Martin Kramer suggests that the donations are instead part of a larger strategy to repair the images of Islam and Saudi Arabia that were tarnished by the Sept. 11 attacks. In the wake of Sept. 11, the prince made donations to the Carter Center for Peace and Health Programs in Africa and to the President George Herbert Walker Bush Scholarship Fund at Andover. By giving to legitimate causes, Kramer contends, Alwaleed enables himself to “exploit the gratitude to promote [his] political agenda.” Congressmen Weiner concurs, accusing the Saudis of “trying to cleanse their bloody hands by taking contributions to institutions like Georgetown and Harvard.”
While Alwaleed’s altruism may do wonders for Saudi public relations, it does a great disservice to students and professors alike, who seek the truth about the Saudi kingdom. Kramer argues that the prince’s donations threaten to reduce the field of Middle Eastern studies to a “cargo cult,” with professors singing the prince’s tune either as a tacit display of appreciation for Alwaleed’s magnanimity or in the hopes of attracting his donations in the future. That Georgetown and Harvard are willing participants in a public relations venture designed to enhance the reputation of the Saudi kingdom and one of its most deplorable princes is galling.
Middle East Studies departments have been the frequent beneficiaries of Saudi royal philanthropy. The Saudis have invested in compromising such departments for over a decade. Alwaleed’s gift was preceded by gifts of $20 million, $5 million and $2 million from various Saudi royals to the University of Arkansas; the University of California, Berkeley; and Harvard, respectively. In March 2004, Saudi Aramco, the Saudi-owned oil company, flew 10 Columbia University faculty members to Saudi Arabia and hosted them throughout their stay. Not surprisingly, the number of presentations at the Middle East Studies Association annual conferences that deal with Saudi Arabia have dwindled dramatically in the last few years. It is telling that for the Saudis, silence is worth millions.
Recalling that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 perpetrators were Saudis, one might ask why Prince Alwaleed doesn’t use his money to promote Saudi understanding of Christians, Jews and other “infidels” outside rather than “educate kids at Harvard.” When Deborah Solomon of the New York Times asked him precisely that question, he responded, “Obviously, it could be something we are contemplating.”
“Could be,” if the prince were truly interested in building bridges to promote peace and understanding. As for Yale, its fortuitous distance from the Alwaleed cash flow is anything but an embarrassment.
Eliana Johnson is a senior in Ezra Stiles college.