As UK universities were reassessing ties with Gulf donors in the wake of several scandals, King’s College London launched its Institute for Middle Eastern Studies. Where does our College stand?

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Last year a British academic found his two-weeks research trip to the Arabian peninsula might take longer than expected. Matthew Hedges, a PhD student at Durham University, was detained for six months by the United Arab Emirates and sentenced to life in prison for “spying” (he was pardoned in November). And with that, tensions between UK universities and generous donors from the Middle East were brought to a boil.

They had been simmering for a while.

Universities model themselves as defenders of freedom of expression and democratic values. However, shining armours are expensive.

Fortunately, Gulf money is plenty. UK universities received at least £70m from Gulf states between 1997 and 2007, with funds primarily allocated to Middle Eastern research centres, according to an academic paper by Jonas Bergan Draege and Martin Lestra of the European University Institute, Italy.

Gulf money is also murky. The Hedges case and the allegedly Saudi orchestrated assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the region’s notoriously bad track record of human rights and individual freedoms, present universities with an important challenge: how to balance financial and research partnerships with their fundamental values.

These recent events placed universities’ fundraising philosophies under increased scrutiny, in both the UK and the US. Worries are that Gulf states are using donations as a way to project spheres of influence in Western academia.

MIT’s decision no to end its relationship with donors from Saudi Arabia was “a tough call, because none of us wants to lend legitimacy to grotesque actions like the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi”, stated Richard K Lester, the institution’s associate provost, for MIT News.

He motivated his decision saying that “on balance, the benefits provided by the work we’re doing outweigh the impact of any kind of reputational support our activities may provide to those in Saudi Arabia responsible for these malevolent actions”.

What’s going on at King’s

At King’s College’s newly established Institute for Middle Eastern Studies (IMES), which stemmed from the Department for Middle Eastern Studies (DMES), there is a problem-free funding philosophy.

“Unusually, DMES did not receive any endowments from wealthy benefactors in the region and neither does IMES. And IMES has no plans to try to attract any such donations”, Professor Jonathan Hill, the Director of IMES, told Roar (Roar is waiting on a Freedom of Information request to confirm this).

Professor Hill also spoke of the challenges facing academics undertaking research in the Middle East, which outreach value disputes. “A number of countries (Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen) are in states of civil war with all the associated dangers. And in a number of others, the local governments and security providers are making life harder for researchers to do their work”, he stated.

Dangerous Influencers?

There is also a serious question whether Gulf funding influences research on the Middle East.

As reported by the Financial Times, the LSE has a history of disputes with Gulf donors. Amongst others, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, former co-director of an LSE programme on development, governance and globalisation in the Gulf, has been denied entry in Dubai after publishing an article contesting the UAE.

Mr Ulrichsen, currently a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East, pointed in an interview with the Financial Times that institutes may self-censor research so as not to “cross certain lines in case the funding is jeopardised”.

Professor Hill has a more optimistic take on the matter. “I don’t think the increased challenges facing scholars and students trying to undertake research in the region will lead to self-censorship. Rather, I think it will lead to more innovative project design and methodologies, and trying to tackle topics and questions in different ways,” he stated.

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