Middle East studies in the News
Saudi Prince on Academic Shopping Spree
by Martin Kramer
Last month, a newspaper in Exeter, England, carried a news item with this Thousand-and-One-Nights headline: "Rich Prince Shares Wealth with City's University Students." Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal had flown into Exeter to make a gift of one million euros to the local university's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. The news item was absolutely breathless in its reportage. "Prince Alwaleed is almost certainly the richest person to have ever set foot in the city," the paper gushed. And he was "not one to travel lightly": "He originally planned to fly into Exeter Airport on his private A340 aircraft—one of the longest planes in the world and what would have been the largest plane ever to land at the airport. But he decided to settle for a more modest jet for his large entourage."
This endowment represents one component of a major effort that I have embarked upon to bridge the gap that has arisen between Islamic and Western communities in recent years. To that end, I have recently established centers of American studies and research at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the American University of Beirut (AUB). And I am in the process of establishing centers of Arab and Islamic studies at select universities in the United States.Well! It's possible that at this very moment, Prince Alwaleed's scouts are scouring America for campuses to plant his "pillars," and you can bet that academic higher-ups who know it are primping themselves. Will the prince prefer entirely new centers on virgin soil? (King Fahd gave about $20 million ten years ago, to create a Middle East center in his name at the University of Arkansas.) Or will Alwaleed prefer to embed programs within existing Middle East centers at top universities? (Prince Sultan did that at Berkeley for $5 million, and Khalid al-Turki did it at Harvard for $2 million.) The mind boggles at the possibilities, when you think of the purchasing power of the world's fifth-richest man.
Of course, this is why we can't ever expect to get the straight story on Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, and oil from people who operate within Middle Eastern studies. If you want a fabulously wealthy Saudi royal to drop out of the sky in his private jet and leave a few million, you had better watch what you say—which means you had better say nothing. For example, look at the program of the upcoming Middle East Studies Association conference, scheduled for November. The conference panels will include over 300 presentations. There are, by my count, at least twenty-five presentations dealing with the Palestinians. There are zero—that's right, zero—dealing with Saudi Arabia. Silence is golden.
Saudi money, as I've written before, has already compromised the research agenda in Middle Eastern studies. Prince Alwaleed's buying binge is liable to reduce the entire field to a cargo cult, with profs and center directors dancing the ardha in the hope of attracting the flying prince. This is great for Saudi Arabia. It's not at all great for the American public, which seeks objective assessments of the Saudi kingdom.
Can anything be done to mitigate creeping corruption? Here's an idea. The U.S. government subsidizes Middle East centers through the Title VI program of the Department of Education. Beginning next year, there will be seventeen National Resource Centers for the Middle East, a record number. Instead of funding so many centers, wouldn't it make more sense to concentrate taxpayers' resources in centers willing to forgo all foreign funding? Say no to foreign money, get more U.S. funding, and tell some truths about places like Saudi Arabia.
As Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act, it should give thought to the effect of foreign funding on area studies, and especially Middle Eastern studies. But that evaluation will take time. In the near future, don't be surprised to see grinning university presidents posing with Prince Alwaleed. They will say there are no strings attached. Puris omnia pura: To the pure all things are pure. Academics do flatter themselves.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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