Ties between American colleges and the Saudi Arabian government or universities are under more scrutiny than ever following the killing of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey last month.
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There have been a number of high-profile Saudi gifts to American universities over the years. In 2005, a Saudi prince, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, gave $20 million each to Georgetown and Harvard Universities for Islamic studies programs. Prince Alwaleed was one of dozens of wealthy Saudi elites who was detained in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh last November as part of what the crown prince characterized as an anticorruption sweep and which his critics saw as a move to solidify his power. Prince Alwaleed spent more than two months in detention before being released in January.
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Saudi Arabia isn't the only foreign country that has funded research or professorships at U.S. universities. Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University who has written a book about the development of Middle East studies, put the issue in context in his field: "I don't think there's any doubt that the Saudis have seen such donations as a way to acquire goodwill, legitimacy and support in U.S. academia (and beyond), just as Turkey a few decades ago donated money for chairs in Ottoman and Turkish studies (and sought to suppress discussion of the Armenian genocide), and Israel (through U.S. Jewish donors and foundations) encouraged the development of Israel studies, which has often had an advocacy dimension in addition to (and in tension with) its scholarly dimension. And of course donors want to ensure that the people filling these chairs and running these programs will be sympathetic to the policies of these countries' regimes, though they cannot always make that happen," Lockman said via email.
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