No free lunch where Saudi Arabian funding is concerned
By Babs Barron
(This was originally written in 2013. I have little reason to believe that circumstances have changed substantially – indeed I suspect that they have become worse).
I know that I am not alone in my strong reservations about the extent of Arab/Muslim funding to UK/Western universities and in society generally. The writing was on the wall as long ago as 2006 when an article in Islam Daily set out the implications of Saudi funding to western universities alone. I suggest that we are now experiencing the fruits of that. I shall explore this further below, as well as disturbing evidence of Saudi involvement in the Ministry of Justice in the UK.
Note the Islam Daily’s reference to Saudi Arabia’s “massive public relations campaign” and the rationale for it:
“… Saudi Arabia’s massive public-relations campaign intends to recapture its lost image in the West as a force for moderation and stability. In addition to the funding of Western institutions, it has lately developed a scholarship programme for Saudi students studying in the US, offering 5,000 students a full four-year scholarship including living allowances. This programme aims at improving the Saudi image in the US and reducing the widespread hostility to the US among the Saudi public.  Strong anti-West and anti-US bias is evident in Saudi mosque sermons, school textbooks, publications and media…”
The Saudi “charm offensive” still applies to the EU and all over the west as well as to the US, viz:
“.. The official Saudi newspaper in English, Ain al-Yaqeen, published an article on March 1, 2002 describing the Kingdom’s efforts at supporting Islam worldwide. It claimed that the Kingdom had spent “astronomical” sums of many billions establishing thousands of mosques, madrassas and Islamic centres in non-Muslim countries in Europe, North and South America, Australia, Africa and Asia. Among the biggest projects was the King Fahd Islamic Center in Malaga, Spain. In addition, the Kingdom has established a number of academic chairs in some of the most respected universities in the developed world in order to “encourage understanding of the true nature of Islam by explaining clearly Muslim beliefs and by correcting misconceptions and misrepresentations”. Especially mentioned are the King Abdul Aziz Chair in Islamic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; the King Fahd Chair in Islamic Sharia Studies at the College of Law at Harvard University; the King Fahd Chair in Islamic Studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) at the university of London and the provision of a resident professor for the Prince Naif Department for Islamic Studies at the University of Moscow..” (emphasis added).
Of course this represents a certain economy with the truth. Saudi’s aim has been to spread the da’wah of Wahhabi Islam and that, given the parlous state of Western economies in the UK at least, the higher education system alongside the NHS suffer most, Saudi funding has been very acceptable to leading universities in the UK.
Saudi funding does not, cannot, come without strings attached, given the Wahhabi Islam which underpins it. Wahhabism is, as the article above states, a narrow form of Islam, hostile to reform and ideologically akin to radical Islam. Its religious imperative is to spread the da’wah throughout the west.
This article touches on the possible consequences of western universities’ obligation to their Arab funders, and when they accept Arab money, to turn a blind eye to the bias and vested interests which may also affect their conduct towards their students and upon the more recent collaboration between the UK Ministry of Justice with Saudi for which the former stands to receive £5.9m as payment for its assistance with Saudi Arabia’s justice system.
Dealing firstly with the UK higher education system:
Universities operate within an intensely competitive “publish or perish” environment. I have referred above to the fact that UK universities are in financially straightened circumstances because of government cutbacks to funding, which could make them very susceptible to Islamic influence.
This appears to be strongly borne out by a 2013 report from the Henry Jackson Society, entitled “At What Price? Transparency and Ethics in Higher Education Funding from Overseas”
The report is quite comprehensive but only insofar as it goes. As well as the troubling information that among the difficulties in collecting full data was “a significant issue around transparency of international funding,” (in that 49% of the universities approached failed to provide adequate data), we learn that money from repressive regimes is accepted to pay tuition fees.
Why are the universities who accept such funding so shy of declaring it? It should be of interest that the University of Manchester, for example, after a series of attempts by the Henry Jackson Society to obtain it, could supply data only for tuition fees for the years 2011/2012 – £5,160,763 in 2011/2012, of which £2,279,977 came from Saudi – and the rest from other regimes rated “not free” by Freedom House.
On a different tack, and more recently, there has also been the matter of the possible conflict of interest inherent in the January 2015 report of Saudi Arabia’s proposed donation of £5.9m to the UK Ministry of Justice for “Ministry of Justice assistance for its punishment system.” The report lists five concerns about the acceptance of the proposed donation:
Transparency: The Ministry of Justice’s refusal to disclose detailed information about the commercial proposal as well as the fact that the Ministry of Justice is also refusing to disclose the accompanying Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which was signed between Saudi Arabia and the Ministry of Justice on 11th September last year and the signing of which was publicised by the UK embassy there. The reader should note the date.
Domestic policy: The appropriateness or otherwise, at a time of severe cuts, for the Ministry to divert scarce civil service resources from the English and Welsh offender management system to assist a punishment regime such that of Saudi Arabia. Also what expertise can the UK claim to have given the regular damning inspection reports?
Whether or not the UK’s assistance will be beneficial to prisoners in Saudi: What positive contribution will the proposed assistance make? Will it, in fact, improve the inhumane and brutal treatment of prisoners? Given the latest evidence about the increase in the number of executions in Saudi Arabia, see here, here, and here , it is difficult to believe that it will.
Legitimacy: will the proposed assistance wrongly offer legitimacy – a valuable seal of approval – to the Saudi punishment system?
Possible conflict of interest: from the point of view of the legal system of England and Wales, will the proposed commercial deal create either an actual or apparent conflict of interest for the Ministry of Justice?
I have suggested above that financial assistance from and other arrangements with Saudi and other Arab states almost invariably come with strings attached, not least in terms of increased influence assumed by the donors in the affairs of the bodies to which they donate funds, in this case UK universities and the UK judicial system.
Returning to reference article, we find that in 2006, for example, the Saudi state forced the UK’s serious fraud office to drop an investigation into BAe (for details, including documented evidence, see the 2008 “Corner House” decision of the House of Lords – a case which should be read by anyone interested in the influence the Saudis have over the UK state). We are informed that there are many examples of those involved with the Saudi state seeking to coerce the legal process within the UK jurisdiction, such as here and here.
The article asks whether, as the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the integrity of the legal system of England and Wales – and the cabinet minister responsible for the department even has a legal – some would say, constitutional – duty to uphold the rule of law – it is open to the Ministry of Justice to enter into a commercial relationship with a foreign state which, as Corner House and other examples show, has a documented record of seeking to coerce the domestic legal process and concludes:
“The Ministry of Justice, responsible for the legal system of England and Wales, is seeking a commercial relationship, by which it intends to make a surplus to be used for other services, with a foreign state which as the Corner House case alone documents coerces the legal system of England and Wales by illegitimate means at its disposal.
“In these circumstances, it cannot be open to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State to enter into a commercial arrangement with the Saudi state.”
The answer is, of course, is that it should not be. However the process is likely to be shrouded with such secrecy that it will be difficult for the ordinary person to assess whether such coercion takes place or the extent to which it does.