- Stanley Hellerexecutive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee. He’s also a member of the Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance.
- Yarden Katzdepartment fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School and an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
In Connecticut, activists are calling on the University of New Haven to cut ties to King Fahd Security College in Saudi Arabia. According to news reports, the Saudi forensic doctor who allegedly dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s body served on the editorial board of a publication tied to King Fahd Security College. Dr. Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy’s name was removed from the publication’s website this week. A forensic scientist from the University of New Haven served on the editorial board with him. We speak to Stanley Heller, executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee, and Harvard Medical School fellow Yarden Katz.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urges Saudi Arabia to disclose who ordered the murder of the Saudi journalist, The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, we end today’s show looking at how U.S. universities are facing new scrutiny over their close ties to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder.
We’re continuing our discussion with two guests. Yarden Katz, department fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School, who wrote an article for The Guardian on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Harvard and MIT earlier this year. His piece, focusing on the kingdom’s close ties to U.S. universities, is headlined “Elite universities are selling themselves—and look who’s buying.” And in Hartford, Connecticut, we’re joined by Stanley Heller, executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee, also a member of the Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance.
We’re going to pick up with Stanley Heller where we left off. Stanley, the information you have is so explosive, so important. You’re exposing the ties in the visit of the crown prince to the University of New Haven and Yale University. And this was before the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, which at this point, though their stories have changed many times, the Saudi regime has admitted. There apparently was a kind of 15-man hit team, came in on two Saudi jets hours before Jamal Khashoggi went into the consulate to get some marriage documents he needed. His Turkish fiancée was standing outside waiting for him. And among those who apparently were in that hit team was a man named Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, a leading forensic doctor, a member of the Society of Forensic Medicine at King Fahd Security College. Can you explain how that relates to the University of New Haven?
STANLEY HELLER: We had objected to the University of New Haven having any ties with that King Fahd Security College or Saudi Arabia as a whole. And then, after the Khashoggi killing, we looked at websites and noticed that the editorial board of a top Saudi forensic society included Salah al-Tubaigy and Henry C. Lee, who is the famous forensic scientist at the University of New Haven. And so, this is what we brought up.
At first, the university said that “We think there are two al-Tubaigys. We’re getting this information from the Saudis.” But that pretty much has been exploded. And the name Salah al-Tubaigy has been taken off that editorial board’s website.
Then, the university said—and says—”Well, we’re proud of what we do. We’re improving the justice system of Saudi Arabia.” And our response was “Well, what are the facts about this? What evidence? Have you been able to convince the Saudi government to give the remains of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr back to his family? They executed this peaceful activist at the beginning of 2016, and his body has not been returned. Have they canceled the sentence of a thousand lashes against Raif Badawi? What about the women, the women who had been for a long time trying to get the right to drive, these feminist activists? They’re in jail. How is the Saudi justice system improved?”
And as a last example, what about what happened when they grabbed the Saudi billionaires last fall? Was there any kind of due process? They stuck them in a hotel, the Ritz-Carlton.
AMY GOODMAN: The crown prince—what you’re talking about—had them—
STANLEY HELLER: —until they forked over billions.
AMY GOODMAN: —had this group of princes held.
STANLEY HELLER: That’s right. And they were held in this hotel. They coughed up billions of dollars, and then they let them go. Was there any due process? Was there any lawyers involved, any charges, anything given to the public about this?
And of course the answer is no. So, how is UNH helping? This is wrong. And that’s the big scandal. UNH, none of these colleges should be helping.
There’s also the question of Yale University, if we can get into that. You mentioned the $10 million this billionaire Kamel family has given to the Yale Law School. We objected to that when that first happened a while back. But what we said is, “All right, you have this Islamic center. You’re interested in law. Yale University, let’s have an emergency conference talking about the state of law in Saudi Arabia.” So we sent a letter to the Yale University. We’ve mentioned this to the press. We have not yet gotten an answer from Yale.
But students at universities around the country should use this opportunity and have conferences of their own. We used to call them teach-ins. It was a combination of a conference and a protest. So, we shouldn’t lose this opportunity. There should be protests like occurred at MIT. There were protests, effective ones, against cluster bombs in Rhode Island. This goes back a couple years ago. And the Obama administration actually stopped it. And there’s been the marvelous CodePink protests in Washington, D.C., where they make those mock pictures of Prince Salman, and they have the—they had one with the royal bone saw, a grisly reminder of what happened in Turkey. So people should get out and protest.
And then they should coordinate, get a hold of us, SaudiUS.org, contact us to, you know, coordinate their protest and educational activities. And also note RPM.world, which is a new antiwar network, which combines support for Palestinians and the Syrian democracy movement and opposition to the Saudis and our road to climate destruction.
AMY GOODMAN: The Turkish government reportedly has audio recording showing that Khashoggi was dragged screaming from the consul general’s office, forced onto a table in a room, injected with an unknown substance. This is all the sort of reports that have come out over the last few weeks. Khashoggi was then reportedly dismembered by a Saudi forensic doctor, an autopsy expert—this is an amazing story—allegedly—now, we don’t know—Tubaigy, who listened to music on headphones as he used a bone saw to a still-breathing Khashoggi into pieces. Now, again, these are reports gotten from all different places in the media. It reportedly took Jamal Khashoggi seven minutes to die—this from Middle East Eye. The forensic doctor, Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, put on the earphones and listened to music, as he advised other members of the squad to do the same, saying, “When I do this job, I listen to music. You should do that, too,” Tubaigy was recorded as saying, according to this source who was talking to the news organization Middle East Eye.
Stanley Heller, as you listen to this, let’s talk more about the University of New Haven’s response and its connection to the center where he works, the—he’s a board member of the Society of Forensic Medicine at King Fahd Security College. I do want to turn to the University of New Haven and its partnership with this college in Riyadh. The Hartford Courant recently asked the university spokeswoman, Lyn Chamberlin, about the collaboration. Chamberlin said, in a statement, that UNH was approached by the Saudi college for guidance as it transitioned to offering 4-year degrees. She wrote, “The goal, then as now, was to help modernize and professionalize criminal justice activities in Saudi Arabia through this educational partnership. … We have been pleased with the academic professionalism of our partners, and we look forward to continuing the relationship.” If you could take it from there, Stanley Heller?
STANLEY HELLER: Well, we’ve called on political leaders in Connecticut, both federal and state, to mount an investigation to see what exactly UNH is doing with King Fahd Security College, to see if there’s any connection between UNH staff and this guy al-Tubaigy or any of the others who were alleged to take part in this killing. I’m pleased to say Senator Blumenthal has responded and has asked that Saudi—I’m sorry, that the UNH college re-evaluate its program with King Fahd Security College. I’m hoping that other political leaders, other members of Congress and state officials, will also make statements about this.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, just for—
STANLEY HELLER: But it’s a very serious thing.
AMY GOODMAN: For people who didn’t hear the first part of this discussion, while you’re saying you don’t absolutely know we’re talking about the same Tubaigy, that from the website of the King Fahd Security College now, of which he was a board member, his name has been removed as you’ve been pressuring the University of New Haven to find out more information, is that right?
STANLEY HELLER: Well, they took his name off the editorial board, but, curiously, they didn’t take his name off the governing board of the Forensic Society. It’s still there in Arabic. And if you use the Google translator, it’s the same name in English. So, I don’t know why they didn’t do this—it’s laziness or whatnot—but the name is still there on the governing board.
AMY GOODMAN: Yarden Katz was just talking to us, who is a department fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School, about—well, Yarden, let’s go to you about this issue of university ties. You are most concerned about Harvard right now and MIT, the crown prince visiting both. The question of, well, you did this before Khashoggi was killed, but this during the ongoing U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition bombing of Yemen—the United Nations is saying it’s the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world now.
YARDEN KATZ: Yes, exactly. So, I think the Khashoggi murder is horrific, and your description of it sent chills down my spine. But in terms of our evaluation of bin Salman, it hasn’t added that much new information. We knew that he’s been doing horrible things in Saudi Arabia. We knew that he’s waging this devastating war in Yemen, that he’s suppressing opposition in other places, in Bahrain. And so, our work, and other activists’, started before the Khashoggi murder to point to the problematic ties between elite universities, like Harvard and MIT, and the Saudi government, and to use that to actually point to a much bigger web of unaccountable partnerships between universities and corporations and governments. When these partnerships are formed, all we really get as members of the public is a press release from the university saying, “Here’s a new multimillion-dollar partnership. Isn’t it wonderful?” But we don’t get any of the details or the terms. And that opens up the way for a government like the Saudi government to use its ties with MIT or Harvard to legitimize itself and to paint an image of itself as a progressive entity or a democratic entity, where in reality it’s not that at all.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to MIT Media Lab’s connection with the bin Salman Foundation, the crown prince’s foundation. Explain what the Media Lab is, and then talk about this connection, Yarden.
YARDEN KATZ: Right. So, the MIT Media Lab is one of the most famous laboratories at MIT. It was founded in the '80s, and they work on a whole range of technologies and various projects. They also work on matters relating to more social issues in recent years. And they have a very unique business model, if you will, which is that they're funded by what are called member companies. So, member companies are organizations or corporations that pay a minimum of $250,000 a year to the MIT Media Lab, and in return they get access to the lab, to the students. They get to recruit MIT community members. And they get access to intellectual property produced by the lab.
So, one of these member companies is an organization called MiSK—M-I-S-K—which is bin Salman’s organization that’s ostensibly about empowering the youth. So, if you look on their website, they say that they’re about empowering the youth to transform society through entrepreneurship, through participation on global markets, etc. Of course, it’s not really about youth empowerment, because if the youth start talking about democracy or if they start talking about politics, they might end up in jail. However, by affiliating with the MIT Media Lab, MiSK is essentially buying that progressive image that MIT has created. So, they’ll have exchange programs where MIT Media Lab researchers go to Saudi Arabia and vice versa, and then the Saudi government will use that to put out press releases where they quote MIT researchers saying, “We are so impressed with what MiSK”—bin Salman’s group—”we’re so impressed with what they’re doing,” and etc. And so, it just becomes another vehicle for them to promote their PR campaign and to create the false impression that really MIT Media Lab and bin Salman’s MiSK Foundation are on the same page, they’re on the same ideological sort of viewpoint.
AMY GOODMAN: His visit also coincided—his visit to Harvard and MIT, the crown prince’s visit—with the March for Our Lives, the student-led protests for tighter gun control. Is that right? And talk about the connection between gun control at home and the U.S. selling of weapons abroad. Of course, President Trump is saying, whatever they find out, he is not going to cut U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
YARDEN KATZ: Right. So, as I mentioned in the first segment, universities were keeping this visit very secret. And so it’s not clear if it’s a coincidence or if it was planned that way, but bin Salman’s visit did coincide with a Saturday, I believe, which was the day of the March for Our Lives protests. So all the media attention was on that, and so people missed the fact that the street where the Media Lab at MIT is located was shut down and there was militarized police presence there. So, there was this big event happening—it’s as if, you know, Obama came to campus—and people missed that because they were focused on the March for Our Lives. And so it played into the secrecy maneuver of these universities, whether by chance or by planning.
Now, I think that the irony here is that the March for Our Lives is really a protest against violence, and here you have, with bin Salman, a war criminal coming to MIT and getting demos of war-related technologies like autonomous weapons, which are made by a company called—autonomous robots which are used for military purposes, made by a company called Boston Dynamics, which is an MIT affiliate. And so, there’s a real tension here. How can you, as an institution like MIT, talk about ethics and making the world a better place through technology, while you’re demoing war technologies and war machines to a war criminal?
AMY GOODMAN: And have students, professors, staff reached out to you, Yarden Katz—and I’m going to put this question to Stanley Heller, as well—from around the country? Because Harvard, Yale, MIT, University of New Haven, though these are elite institutions, they are not the only ones that are linking up with Saudi Arabia.
YARDEN KATZ: Right. So they’re absolutely not the only ones, and I want to emphasize that. There are ties to UC Berkeley. There are ties between bin Salman’s MiSK Foundation, which I mentioned, and the Gates Foundation. I mean, it’s a whole web of ties, which hasn’t been scrutinized in any detail, unfortunately. The things that I mentioned are just a small fraction of the ties that exist.
So, yes, we’ve been contacted by faculty members who are concerned about this, by students, by activists from around the world who also are protesting these ties. Some of them can’t speak about it, because they’re scared for their personal safety because they live in countries that have repressive governments. And so, I want to emphasize that while we’re criticizing these universities, our criticism is really directed at the administration and at a subset of the faculty members who are involved in making these decisions and in forming these partnerships. These partnerships do not reflect the views of the broader academic community or the local community. And I think that now we’re seeing a kind of small rebellion in these universities—Harvard and MIT, for instance—where students are saying, “We’ve had enough of this. We don’t want ties to war criminals. And we also don’t like these partnerships which are secret and that are only described through kind of vapid press releases and we don’t know what the details are.”
AMY GOODMAN: Stanley Heller, you’re head of the Middle East Crisis Committee, also a member of the Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance. Let me put that same question to you: Are staff, professors, students reaching out to you around the country? And even at University of New Haven and at Yale, what has been the response on campus to the work you’re doing?
STANLEY HELLER: Well, I would second the notion that our problem is certainly not with any of the colleges, but with the administration, who are looking at the money and the false glory of this. And we’ve had some people reaching out. We’re happy to say that the student newspaper at UNH, The Charger Bulletin, has done some fine reporting about this and has printed out our material, even though their administration has never said a word to us about any of our complaints about King Fahd Security College.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans now?
STANLEY HELLER: Well, again, education and protest and coordination, and particularly working on the website of the SaudiUS.org. We understand Kathy Kelly and Voices for Creative Nonviolence is going to do a demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Election Day. Action Corps New York City has done a lot of good protests. I think they did three or four protests when Prince Salman was in New York City earlier this year. So, there’s a lot of groups—not a lot, but there are a good number of groups doing a lot of good work. The Catholic Worker Movement, I should say, they’ve been having a vigil about Yemen in New York for a long time. So, people should try to, you know, come to our site, and we’ll hook people up to various activities all around the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Stanley Heller, as you talk about grassroots groups, this has gone very much into the establishment and mainstream, particularly in Connecticut. I can’t think of two more vocal senators on this issue than Senator Chris Murphy, as well as Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal, Senator Blumenthal, said, “All American businesses and nonprofit organizations should review and re-evaluate their relationships with Saudi Arabia in light of the … murder, which seemingly could not have been done without knowledge at the highest levels of its government.”
STANLEY HELLER: A very strong statement.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank both of you for being with us, and of course we’ll continue to follow this issue. Stanley Heller, executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee, also member of the Coalition to End the U.S.-Saudi Alliance. And thank you very much to Yarden Katz, department fellow in systems biology at Harvard Medical School, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. And, Yarden, we’ll link to your article in The Guardian on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Harvard and MIT, that piece that’s headlined “Elite universities are selling themselves—and look who’s buying.”
This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.