Castillo: The Saudi monarchy can’t buy our dignity

Rodrigo Castillo, Op-Ed Contributor

After news broke last Tuesday that several U.S. colleges and universities, including Northwestern University, received more than $350 million from the Saudi government or its institutions, NU announced it would ask its faculty to reconsider its relationship with Saudi Arabia. NU received $14.4 million from the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, a Saudi scientific government institution that focuses on scientific applied research. Now it is NU’s chance to show it stands in defense of Jamal Khashoggi and will not turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s increasingly alarming human rights violations.

It has become far from unusual to hear about Saudi Arabia funneling millions of dollars into the tech industry and scientific research, a trend that has been going on since the 1990s. While in light of recent events several companies are reviewing and considering a boycott on Saudi funding, technology giants like Uber and Twitter, and prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale, Georgetown and NU have for years been common recipients of large sums of money granted by the Saudi government and its institutions.

However the past month has not been a bright one for the Saudi crown. After news of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder broke, many multinational companies and corporations have backed away from business with the Saudis. Just last week, the New York Times published a piece revealing the compliance of different consulting firms, including McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group, in helping the Saudi regime keep control of its citizens’ criticism after it announced unpopular austerity measures. Yet McKinsey and BCG were determined to remain in Mohammed bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative conference.

With weapons sold by the U.S., the Saudis have backed a war in Yemen, one of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. To prevent political instability and suppress any opposition, the Kingdom has jailed hundreds of human-rights activists and journalists each year. Just last year, the regime executed 146 people, according to a report issued by Amnesty International.

Yet, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, pretends to be rallying a new movement of changes, development and prosperity. But so-called “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring” is nothing more than a political tool to maintain stability in his authoritarian regime. Here’s is why context matters.

After their first two oil booms, between the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf nations) was confident that its petrodollars were capable of buying the latest technological developments and infrastructures. Soon enough, they realized in order to sustain economic prosperity long-term they needed to invest in the academic institutions that are home to these revolutionary developments and ideas. The kingdom did not just give away those millions of dollars as charity or a love for education.

This form of petrodollar authoritarian machine does not care about the value of a human being, knowing that human rights violations are not a concern for multinational firms and corporations like McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group. A month after news on the murder of Khashoggi under the order of the Saudi government went viral, Mohammed bin Salman and his government think they can get away with absolutely anything.

This might be the chance for institutions to prove otherwise. To prove that, coming from a country founded upon the ideals of liberal democracy that highly values freedom of expression, U.S. colleges care about freedom of expression. They should show that Saudi Arabia’s petrodollar cannot buy people’s dignity.

Rodrigo Castillo is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.