Georgetown Yankees in Prince Alwaleed’s court

In December, Harvard and Georgetown universities announced that they’d each received $20 million from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, for programs in Islamic studies. There’s been much commentary on this, and I’ll have more to say later. For now, I draw your attention to the photograph of the signing ceremony for the Georgetown deal.

Presumably, Alwaleed’s own photographer shot the event (it took place on November 7 at one of his properties in Paris), and it seems logical to assume that Alwaleed selected the photograph for release to the press. Anyone gazing upon it will sense immediately that this wasn’t just a signing ceremony. It was a deliberately choreographed court ritual, about power and control.

The most striking element in the mise en scène is the positioning of Prince Alwaleed. He is front and center. Immediately to his right is Georgetown president John J. DeGioia. Note that they aren’t positioned as equals—as joint partners in a shared enterprise. That’s because DeGioia is a mere a recipient of royal largesse, inferior to Prince Alwaleed. This is true not only in the formal sense that he is not of royal lineage. It’s also true in absolute terms of wealth. Georgetown’s endowment is a meager $680 million. Prince Alwaleed’s personal worth is estimated at $23.7 billion. In other words, Georgetown’s entire endowment can be tucked into the leftovers of Alwaleed’s worth, to the right of the decimal point.

It’s telling, too, that DeGioia is grinning in gratitude, while Prince Alwaleed remains expressionless. DeGioia has achieved a coup, having added greatly to the university’s endowment. It remains for Georgetown to do what it takes to put a smile on Prince Alwaleed’s face. “We are deeply honored by Prince Alwaleed’s generosity,” DeGioia said in a statement announcing the gift. It’s a telling formula. Prince Alwaleed, unlike most donors to universities, hasn’t exchanged his money for the trifling honors of academe. He has showered Georgetown with his money and his honor. Now it’s incumbent upon Georgetown to give him what he wants in return.

That’s where the figure seated at the far left comes in. He’s Georgetown professor John Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which has now been renamed for Prince Alwaleed. Esposito, more than any other academic, contributed to American complacency prior to 9/11. He peers out from this photograph as if to say: I’m back. Indeed he is, having proved that he’s still a magnet for Arab and Muslim money. Prince Alwaleed apparently decided that while Esposito’s reputation may be dented, the professor still has some value in him. (Remember, too, that the prince made his fortune buying up distressed stock.) So Esposito’s now a bought and paid-for subsidiary, and he’s signed himself over in his own hand, as this photograph attests. (But Esposito, to his credit, doesn’t undersell himself. A recent profile reported that he’d unloaded his trophy Hillandale home to the NFL commissioner, downsizing to a Bethesda, Maryland condo, while keeping his getaway on the Maryland shore and a “dream home” on the Florida coast. He collects up to $30,000 for speaking to groups that support his message. Advocating for foreign interests from within the academy can be a lucrative vocation.)

What’s also striking, too, is that DeGioia and Esposito have crossed the Atlantic to accept the gift in Paris—specifically, at the Hotel George V, owned by Prince Alwaleed. The great Arabian prince cannot be troubled to come to Georgetown, but rather summons his newly-acquired agents to his outlying campsite to collect their gift, hear his wishes, and take oaths to do his bidding.

Finally, note that the scene is flanked by two national flags, of the United States and Saudi Arabia. Georgetown is a private university (with its own flag), and Prince Alwaleed is a private businessman. The agreement between them isn’t a treaty between governments. But the national flags send the implied message that this deal is somehow in the interests of the two countries and deserves their blessing. Prince Alwaleed thus claims to serve a higher purpose, as a self-professed “friend” of the United States and its “special relationship” with the Saudi kingdom.

I find the whole scene both fascinating and repelling. It’s the most dramatic visual confirmation of the deep corruption that Prince Alwaleed’s buying spree is spreading through academe and Middle Eastern studies. Erik Smulson, assistant vice president for communications at Georgetown, made this assurance about the gift: “The funds are designated, but there are no strings attached.” Such boiler-plate statements are ritualistic incantations. Over two years ago, I predicted that Alwaleed would reduce Middle Eastern studies to a cargo cult, with university administrators vying to win the attention of the flying prince. And I wrote this passage: “In the near future, don’t be surprised to see grinning university presidents posing with Prince Alwaleed. They will say there are no strings attached. Puris omnia pura: To the pure all things are pure.”

My prediction has come true.