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Despite political tensions, Stanford’s Saudi partnerships continue with little scrutiny

Stanford students and faculty visited Saudi Arabia in 2013 as part of a partnership with Saudi university KFUPM and Saudi Aramco, the state oil company / Courtesy of Donald Lowe

When Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last spring, several dozen protesters — locals as well as MIT and Harvard students —  showed up bearing signs that called the Prince a war criminal for his country’s military intervention in Yemen. A Change.org petition with 6,000 signatures urged MIT to cancel the visit.

“I think it’s an embarrassment for MIT to be associated with him and to welcome him here this weekend,” a student told The Tech, MIT’s campus paper.

Later that fall, MIT’s president commissioned a review of the university’s Saudi connections. Although the resulting report recommended against severing any partnerships, it acknowledged that the apparent murder in October of Washington Post journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi had “deflated” hopes of a more progressive future for Saudi Arabia, adding to an already troubling record on human rights.

MIT’s inspection of its Saudi ties came at a time of intense controversy for the Kingdom. Prince bin Salman, colloquially known as MbS, had launched an ambitious reform program known as Saudi Vision 2030 to transform the monarchy’s oil-dependent economy by attracting investment from around the globe. MbS initially sent a message of change by allowing women to drive and vowing to steer his country toward openness and “moderate Islam.” But his reign soon fell under scrutiny following the mass arrest of Saudi elites in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, the detention of then-Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri and other incidents.

For years, Stanford scientists have collaborated with and received funding from the Saudi national laboratory, government-supported universities and the state-owned oil company Aramco. But despite having ties with Saudi Arabia much like MIT’s — including with several of the government institutions probed in the MIT report — Stanford has undertaken no broad review of its connections to Saudi Arabia. As a result, Stanford’s Saudi relationships have continued largely under the radar. Some at Stanford find these relationships uncontroversial or point to their scientific and cultural benefits. Others approach them with more wariness or believe the University should engage more thoughtfully with the country.

Oil industry roots

Stanford’s history with the Saudi Arabian government begins with a geology student from rural Oregon.

Max Steineke graduated from Stanford in 1923 and went on to discover Saudi Arabia’s first productive oil field — jumpstarting the industry that transformed the country into the world’s largest oil exporter. As chief geologist for what would become Aramco, Steineke pushed to drill the “Lucky Number Seven” well that, by 1938, was producing almost 4,000 barrels of oil per day. The increased capacity for oil production gave Saudi Arabia new prominence in the world.

An oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The CEO of Aramco highlighted Steineke’s success when he spoke at Stanford in 2012, telling an audience of some 300 people about the virtues of “digging a little deeper.” His visit to campus included a meeting with School of Earth Sciences faculty and a private dinner at the home of then-Provost John Etchemendy.

By then, Stanford’s Saudi connections went far beyond Steineke. In 2011, a dozen Aramco affiliates were studying at Stanford while another 40 were alumni, according to speech at the time from the head of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM). Stanford, Aramco and KFUPM had recently launched a partnership to do research “closely aligned with the interests of Saudi Aramco and the Kingdom,” as the head of KFUPM put it.

“We already have a strong partnership with Saudi Aramco, so this broadened relationship allows Stanford to become even more actively involved in research and academic development in Saudi Arabia,” Etchemendy said as the collaboration kicked off.

At the same time, Aramco endowed a faculty position in Stanford’s Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences. Donald Lowe is now the Max Steineke Professor in Earth Sciences.

As with most endowed positions, Aramco has no input in Lowe’s research, Lowe said. In fact, he’s had little contact with them or others in Saudi Arabia for the last couple years, after his projects in the region wound down. He collaborated with the company and KFUPM scientists to study deep water sediments, a speciality of his with implications for oil extraction.

“[Aramco is] not in it for just philanthropy,” Lowe told The Daily. “They’re in it to get something that they can use, and we’re in it to get a good education and research projects and be able to give our students the experience of working in a foreign country, of seeing different rocks or solving different kinds of problems.”

From 2011 to 2017, an Associated Press analysis found, nine U.S. universities received more than $10 million from the Saudi government and groups it controls, with George Washington University leading at almost $74 million. Stanford is one of six schools for which Department of Education data does not contain any foreign donor identities, so it’s unclear where the school ranks. Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda declined to share the missing information, telling The Daily that the University considers gifts confidential.

However, Stanford is ninth among tracked colleges and universities in money from all Saudi people and entities, according to the Education Department’s latest data. That funding has dropped steadily in recent years. In 2012, Saudi Arabia accounted for more of Stanford’s foreign gifts than any other country, while the data so far for last year lists no Saudi money.

The Stanford-KFUPM-Aramco partnership included two trips that brought U.S. and Saudi researchers together: one to Death Valley, and another to Aramco facilities and the Saudi desert. Lowe’s research was one of a host of associated projects related to oil recovery but dealing with fundamental science — basic questions about how, for example, materials interact. While that first “trilateral” collaboration has ended, Aramco and KFUPM continued to work with scientists at Stanford. The groups joined for another field trip last year.

Lowe recalled distinct cultural and political differences between the groups of scientists that came together for trips back in 2012 and 2013. KFUPM initially told Stanford they could only bring male students and faculty to Saudi Arabia. But when Stanford pushed back, KFUPM accommodated. Most of the students at the all-male school had never worked with women in the field before, and watching the delegations integrate, Lowe said, was “mind boggling.”

“The rocks were great,” he said, but so was the exchange of cultures and teaching methods.

“Both groups change a little bit,” he added.

Just as Stanford’s connections to Saudi Arabia are not unique among U.S. universities, foreign research partnerships are common, especially in engineering and the sciences, said Anthony Kovscek, a professor of petroleum engineering who participated in the research partnership. Kovscek has projects with the French oil company Total as well as with academics in Norway, France and Colombia.

“I think one of the things that’s kind of great about Stanford is there’s a lot of — the idea of [the] freedom of the investigator to develop the collaborations that they want is very strong,” he said.

Kovscek called Khashoggi’s killing troubling. But he said he believes in “keeping politics out of science.” He acknowledges social and political issues in Saudi Arabia and the broader region but doesn’t think they should dictate whom academics can work with.

“You could turn it around, right?” he said, going on to reference humanitarian issues at the U.S.’s border with Mexico. “What do people in Norway think about the current situation that we have on the southern border… People are dying, and it’s tragic.” He recalled conversations with foreigners who disapprove of the U.S.’s use of the death penalty: “I know that has troubled institutions in Europe about interacting with institutions in the U.S.”

Saudi politics aside, Kovscek also knows that some academics are skeptical of partnering with a big oil company. A specialist in the science behind petroleum extraction, Kovscek believes that countries need to draw on many types of energy, and that “stable [oil] supplies held by countries that are more or less stable is a good thing.” But he remembers how, back when he was a college student, a massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska led some of his classmates to declare that they’d never take research funding from the company.

“That’s the nice thing about our system,” Kovscek said. “You can decide for yourself where your boundaries are.”


Politics and science collide

The trilateral agreement with Aramco and KFUPM wasn’t Stanford’s only academic collaboration in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, Stanford announced it was one of a host of schools helping with a brand new, $10-billion-endowment Saudi research university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

KAUST, a national project initially run by Aramco, was part of a modernization push by the relatively progressive King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz for whom the university is named. As a hub for foreign academics and as the first co-ed university in a country that still grants women far fewer rights than men, KAUST looked, to many, like a step toward the opening up of Saudi society. The campus was a westernized bubble in a deeply conservative Kingdom. It boasted amenities like a movie theater that were banned elsewhere, and female students could walk around with their heads uncovered.

While Kovscek emphasizes the need to separate science and politics, the Stanford professors behind the KAUST partnership saw highly political implications in an academic partnership, right from the start. In their eyes, science was an avenue for social reform.

“I think KAUST is a visionary project by moderate people in Saudi Arabia,” computer science professor Jean-Claude Latombe, one of the collaboration’s main organizers, told Stanford News in 2008. “By helping these people, we have a chance to make a big impact in this country, and, since Saudi Arabia has become the most important Arab country — a role that Egypt had had in the past — we can also have a major impact on the region.”

“This project is extremely challenging because there are very traditionalist people in Saudi Arabia who may oppose it,” Latombe added, contrasting Saudi Arabia’s king to its political “extremists.”

Students and locals protest the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia’s visit to MIT last March / Courtesy of Mahi Shafiullah/The Tech

Noting KAUST’s commitment to nondiscrimination in religion, race and gender, the Stanford News announcement of the new partnership highlighted not just KAUST and Stanford’s shared research interests but also the schools’ shared values.

“There was great care taken in the drafting of the agreement to make certain that Stanford’s principles were a central part of the agreement,” said Jim Plummer, then-dean of the School of Engineering.

The agreement was a lucrative one. Stanford would help KAUST pick 10 faculty and develop curriculums in applied math and computer science. It would also get $5 million from KAUST each year for five years: $3 million designated for collaborative projects with researchers at KAUST, and the rest to be used however Stanford’s computer science and Computational and Mathematical Engineering departments saw fit.

KAUST gave millions to Stanford energy researchers, too. Stanford professor Yi Cui, famous for his work on rechargeable batteries, was among 12 “global research partnership investigators” funded by KAUST in 2008. That same year, KAUST and Stanford announced a $25 million, five-year grant for a new Stanford research center aiming to make solar power cost-competitive with coal.

Six years later, Stanford debuted another Saudi collaboration, this time with the country’s national laboratory: the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). KACST and Stanford would work together on a new Center of Excellence in Aeronautics and Astronautics, investigating everything from green propellants to better safety for small aircraft. With many different projects under its umbrella, the arrangement formalized Stanford researchers’ existing relationships with the Saudi laboratory.

As with the KAUST agreement, the KACST partnership was billed as part of a broader effort to modernize Saudi Arabia by supporting tech and science education.

“Our aim is to help transfer the country from an oil-dependent economy to a knowledge based economy,” said Prince Turki Saud Bin Mohammed Al Saud Ph.D. ’97, a Stanford alum, Saudi royal and vice president of research institutes at KACST, at the time.

Charbel Farhat, a professor in aeronautics and astronautics who leads the collaboration at Stanford, declined to speak with The Daily for this article, saying he did not want to get into politics. A spokesperson for the School of Engineering said KACST continues to fund research at Stanford.

Robert Byer, a professor in the applied physics department, praised the science the KACST partnership has produced. Byer worked with the Saudi laboratory and NASA to launch a satellite and advance the detection of gravitational waves — the space-time “ripples” that Albert Einstein predicted over a century ago as part of his groundbreaking general theory of relativity.

While Byer and his colleagues met their scientific goals, Byer said shifts in the Saudi political climate made it harder to conduct research. His last visit to the country was in 2015 — the same weekend Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen — and his stay in Riyadh brought new restrictions. Travel in and out of the country grew difficult. Even within the city, he could no longer move around freely.

It wasn’t a good place for scientists, Byer said. “The country had militarized.”

Under new scrutiny

Last June, Stanford signed a “memorandum of understanding” with a new Saudi Arabian university, the Prince Mohammed bin Salman College for Cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Technologies, or MbS Tech for short. Other U.S. groups like Carnegie Mellon University and Silicon Valley for-profit Draper University had already struck similar partnerships. Stanford — touted by MbS Tech officials as a world leader in science and engineering — would look into advising the Saudi university on its curriculum in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing.

Latombe, the professor behind the old KAUST partnership, declined to get involved. His decision came just a few weeks before the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

Latombe hadn’t had contact with KAUST or others in Saudi Arabia for years and, having retired in 2013, he wanted to pursue other interests. But that wasn’t his only concern. He also “did not trust Prince MbS’s intentions.”

“Unlike with KAUST, I did not believe that the project had anything to do with modernizing Saudi society and introducing an additional dose (even a very small one) of democracy in the kingdom,” Latombe told The Daily over email. He declined to elaborate.

Latombe’s wariness toward this new Saudi partnership reflects a growing sense among observers that the country wasn’t as committed to reform as hoped, even before the killing that rocked U.S.-Saudi relations.

In his 2030 plan to diversify the Kingdom’s economy, MbS presented Saudi Arabia as a country ready for modernization and liberalization. But reality seemed far less optimistic.

On November 7, 2017, when the Saudi-born Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in Riyadh’s airport, he was greeted not by diplomatic officials but by security forces that confiscated his phones and took him into custody. Eleven hours later, Hariri declared his intention to resign in a televised statement from the Saudi capital.

Hariri’s unexpected resignation followed just three days after the detention and extortion of hundreds of Saudi royals, billionaires and government officials in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Saudi authorities claimed that the detention was part of the Kingdom’s effort to crack down on corruption.

In response to the Khashoggi incident, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in October 2018 that Germany would no longer export arms equipment to Saudi Arabia. Calls for severing ties with Saudi Arabia have also reverberated in the U.S., where the Senate voted to end American military assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen — a conflict the United Nations has called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” Just this month, President Trump vetoed a later incarnation of the bill. And while Trump has refrained from blaming MbS for Khashoggi’s killing, despite CIA evidence that he was involved, the incident continues to have repercussions for the U.S.-Saudi military and intelligence partnership.

Cutting ties with Saudi Arabia is complicated, though, by political realities — including the fact that U.S. rivals could gain a strategic advantage by filling the void. And those complications extend beyond government.

“While some Western investors have shown a reluctance to engage in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, many others continue to work closely with the Saudi government,” political science professor Lisa Blaydes wrote in an email to The Daily. “And if Western firms pass on those opportunities, Chinese investors are ready to step into their place.”

Students on Stanford’s 2013 exchange trip with KFUPM / Courtesy of Donald Lowe

However, the renewed political tensions illustrate how Saudi Arabia’s hope to adopt modern norms and institutions has clashed with its impulse for the regressive, authoritarian model that has sustained the Kingdom for decades.

Many have described MbS’s agenda as an effort to reform Saudi Arabia, said Hesham Sallam, associate director of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute.

“In reality, however, his project sought to modernize autocracy in Saudi Arabia and to concentrate political and economic power in the hands of a narrower circle of elites,” he said.

Some argue that by leveraging its enormous wealth, Saudi Arabia simultaneously legitimizes and rebrands itself by partnering with elite U.S. universities and investing in research and technology domestically and abroad.

Last year’s collaboration with MbS Tech faltered shortly after Khashoggi’s death on Oct. 2, 2018. According to Judith Romero, a spokesperson for Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL), the exploratory partnership came to an end on Oct. 15 due to a “lack of alignment with faculty interests and availability.” When asked if the Khashoggi incident played a role in the decision, Romero said the absence of faculty interest had become clear before then.

Companies, nonprofits and government agencies often reach out to VPTL looking to use Stanford’s resources through the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), Romero said. SCPD connects these groups with the relevant Stanford faculty and departments to “explore whether or not collaboration makes sense.”

The memorandum of understanding with MbS College never moved beyond that early stage, she said.

Other partnerships with Saudi government groups have continued. In the summer of 2018, SCPD designed a program for 35 members of the Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF), the state-owned investment agency. This program delivered “training in finance, leadership, strategic planning and innovation” for Industrial Fund managers, according to Romero.

SCPD plans to provide an additional program for newly hired analysts focusing on “credit, risk and financial modeling” in the summer of 2019. Romero said SCPD is not involved in Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision or its development plans for the region.

When asked whether Stanford has reviewed or reconsidered its collaborations with Saudi Arabia like MIT, University spokesperson Miranda said that Stanford examines research proposals and financial agreements that “may pose export control or information security risks” on a case-by-case basis.

“That is not limited to, nor specific to, any one country,” he wrote in an email.

A Stanford Review article from January criticizes Stanford’s partnerships with Saudi Arabia, arguing that the Kingdom’s values are inconsistent with the University’s and weighing in against relationships built solely around Stanford’s tech expertise.

“A purely technological contribution from Stanford would uphold the authority of the Saudi regime and might even contribute to illiberal ends,” the Review piece reads.

But opposition to work with Saudi state groups has been nowhere near as visible as in Cambridge, and other Stanford community members believe that universities’ engagement with the Kingdom can have a positive influence under the right circumstances. Lowe, the Earth sciences professor who led exchange trips with KFUPM, emphasized the value he sees in simply exposing people from the two countries to each other.

“I’m not sure it’s our job to create change, just our job to introduce [Saudi citizens] to our stuff and our people and our culture, just the way that they’re introducing us to their culture when we’re over there,” he said.

Alp Akis ’21, a member of American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS), thinks universities can play a more explicit role in pushing for liberalization. Cutting all ties with Saudi Arabia is unrealistic, he said, but U.S. institutions can use their involvement as leverage for encouraging progressive values in the Kingdom.

“Stanford could use its existing relationship with Saudi state agencies and companies to promote the values that Stanford stands for,” Akis said, suggesting that the school could make its offers to work with state agencies conditional on steps toward “democratization” ranging from strengthening LGBTQ+ rights to releasing political prisoners to protecting press freedom. For example, he said, Stanford could require that a Saudi university seeking curriculum advice commit to making a certain percentage of its instructors female.

“This model should not be used as justification of making profits by benefiting the Saudi regime, but should be carried out with sincere intentions of effecting change,” Akis said.

Contact Daniel Yang at danieljy ‘at’ stanford.edu and Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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