Saudi Oil Lobby Puffs Middle East Centers

When my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies appeared just after 9/11, the Middle Eastern studies crowd panicked. They feared that unfavorable publicity would damage them in Washington, and endanger the millions of dollars they receive in government subsidies. The then-president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) talked about hiring a “professional communicator.” But who could do the job, and how would MESA pay for it? I’m not sure how those questions were answered, but the magazine Saudi Aramco World has just published the biggest puff job ever done on Middle Eastern studies.

It’s a twelve-page cover story, lavishly produced, with big glossy photographs of noted professors and MESA officers in thoughtful poses (here is a text-only version) The author is a former staffer of the magazine, who now bills himself as a “corporate communications expert.” And the focus is very precise: it’s about the invaluable role of Middle East centers that receive U.S. government subsidies under Title VI, the Department of Education’s international education program. The centers are presented as loci of deep knowledge, as oases of wisdom in a desert of soundbites. Here are the real experts, and they deserve every penny they get.

I would guess that Saudi Aramco World is sent gratis to a lot of influential people, including congressmen. They’re clearly the target audience of this lobbying piece. One of them is even quoted: David Obey (D-Wis.), patron saint of Title VI funding, who helped the centers land a major increase in funding just after 9/11. Obey: “We need more understanding of the Middle East, its cultures and the issues facing the region. Area-studies centers… [are] critically important in resolving the immediate crisis and in developing long-term solutions.” More understanding obviously will cost more money, and if Obey is to be believed, there is no such thing as a wasted taxpayer dollar when it comes to Middle Eastern studies.

My book showed otherwise, and more evidence has accumulated since it appeared. But at no point is the reader told that Middle Eastern studies are controversial. Instead, the article makes the story of Middle Eastern studies in America sound like a march of linear progress. More programs, more funding, more enrollments—Middle Eastern studies are celebrated as a growth industry. In fact, the article reads like a promotional piece on oil exploration. So does its title: “The New Push for Middle Eastern Studies.” Let’s get in there with some investment, and develop and pump those reservoirs of expertise.

Yet despite the federal focus, this piece is an excellent reminder of how indebted Middle Eastern studies are to Saudi largesse. Because this is Saudi Aramco Magazine, it has to fuss over the recently-endowed Saudi programs at the centers. The article reports that Saudi businessman Khalid Alturki last year added $500,000 to the $1.5 million he’d already given to establish the Contemporary Arab Studies Program at Harvard. And the article reminds us of the biggest of the Saudi endowments at a major center: the Sultan Endowment for Arab Studies, established in 1998 with a $5 million gift from the Prince Sultan Charity Foundation. That’s the same Prince Sultan who is long-time defense minister of Saudi Arabia, and whose son is Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador in Washington.

What does it mean for a place like Berkeley’s center to land this kind of gift? Well, start with accommodations, as described in this account from the San Francisco Chronicle:

In Stephens Hall at UC Berkeley, the Center for African Studies occupies a two-room office marked by cracked walls and scuffed linoleum floors.

Down the hall, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies operates out of a sumptuously appointed suite of offices with stained glass, gleaming copper paneling and a trickling fountain.

A few years ago, these centers were virtually the same. Both made do with modest budgets and tiny offices. They shared a copier.

Then Nezar AlSayyad, chairman of Middle Eastern Studies, took two trips to Saudi Arabia with UC Berkeley chancellors.

The rest is history. Prince Bandar showed up in person at Berkeley in November 1998 to deliver the check. Not only did the royal family buy an Arab studies program on prime academic real estate. The Sultan Foundation records that a million dollars of the Sultan Endowment at Berkeley is earmarked for “outreach”—that is, activities beyond the campus.

At this point you may be scratching your head, asking why the Saudis are putting their money and public relations clout at the service of left-leaning academics, whose sympathies are decidedly not with oil monarchies. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? They may be left-leaning, but they’d all like sumptuous suites with trickling fountains. Needless to say, academics who dream of princes bearing gifts are not going to throw bolts of criticism at Saudi Arabia, or even tell you whether the Saudi monarchy might be in trouble.

Which is why it makes perfect sense for Saudi Aramco World to handle the public relations for Middle Eastern studies. It keeps the professors indebted. But it also makes the MESA crowd look good. On the pages of Saudi Aramco World, they don’t come across as flakey radicals, recently led by Joel Beinin and always enamored of Edward Said. Instead they seem like part of that great machine that assures the steady supply of oil at reasonable prices.

Hey, it’s America. Slick salesmanship is perfectly legitimate. And I have to hand it to these people. They think Washington is run by a “cabal” and that the Saudis sleep with the Bushes. Yet they regularly manage to extract generous subsidies from both. Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell) seems to be their motto. Of course, the same can’t always be said of academia.