FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2018, file photo, candles, lit by activists, protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are placed outside Saudi Arabia's consulate, in Istanbul, during a candlelight vigil. President Donald Trump is facing mounting pressure to sternly rebuke Saudi Arabia over the death of Khashoggi. So far, Trump is resisting calls to harshly reprimand the close U.S. ally.
Photo: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File
Photo: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File

Opinion: Saudi students and cash flow to our campuses. But we can’t ignore repression.

Margareta Larsson teaches English as a second language at Georgia State University. In this essay, she delves into teaching the principle of free speech to international students from a country where it is not allowed.

Larsson discusses Saudi Arabia, which has been in the news since the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Many Saudi students attend American universities, including GSU.

While President Trump continues to stand by the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Senate is considering a rebuke for the prince’s role in the killing.

But Trump has said the United States "intends to remain a steadfast partner" of the country, citing Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to America. He has also thanked Saudis for falling oil prices.

By Margareta Larsson 

For over a decade, I've taught Saudi students studying English as a second language in the United States, and I've yet to conduct a class where the principle of freedom of speech has not been discussed. But what do I do going forward? Do I explain that free speech is a cherished American value, protected by a Constitutional amendment, except in the case, as President Trump has made clear, when business is prioritized over human rights? 

The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, warrants a strong response from those who profess a belief in fundamental principles of free speech and the rule of law —even if their affirmation jeopardizes commercial ties with Saudi Arabia. 

Since 2005, a sizeable portion of my salary has come, however indirectly, from scholarships funded by the Saudi government. This also holds true for American academics in other fields. For the past 18 years, as many as 120,000 Saudi students annually have received full scholarships and generous monthly stipends from their government to study here. 

This year alone, about 60,000 Saudi students are studying in the United States. The Saudi government's scholarship program, which injects substantial funds into universities and local communities, was established by the former King Abdullah after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its stated purpose is to educate young Saudis and to promote "mutually beneficial cultural exchange" between Saudi Arabia and the host countries. 

The ambitious and generously funded initiative has resulted in many young Saudis returning to their country with graduate degrees and fluency in English, and, hopefully, an appreciation for democratic values. However, Saudi students can be subject to terrifying experiences ironically precisely because of those values. 

Not long ago, one of our female Saudi students found herself shaken to her core, literally paralyzed with fear, when a public speaker on campus approached her and yelled close to her face, "You are a terrorist!" seemingly because she was wearing a veil. 

Several Saudi students—those who witnessed the incident and those who soon learned of it—subsequently told me that they were stunned to learn that such hateful speech enjoyed Constitutional protection. This extracurricular experience proved a tough lesson in the discomforts that can result from legally protected free speech. 

Saudi students, like all students, share a fundamental desire to pursue their individual dreams. Many Saudis in the U.S. pursue degrees in business or information technology; but among their numbers, of course, some dream to advance political reform. 

Earlier this year, I shared the joy experienced by my Saudi students with one long-awaited reform in their country when Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive. I soon enjoyed a "first" in my classroom when a young Saudi woman explained she had to miss a class because of her driver's license test. 

Remarkably for his generation, the author of that reform— Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—has never studied outside the kingdom. Even so, he has received praise as a liberal reformer. 

However, the end of the ban of women driving was accompanied by a less liberal government act: several human rights activists, including the women Samar Badawi and Nasima al-Sadah, who had agitated for the ban to be lifted, were imprisoned by the Saudi government.

At the time, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the act of jailing the activists, and Saudi Arabia countered by quickly ordering all Saudi students on scholarships in Canada to return to Saudi Arabia. The students had their studies abruptly interrupted, and Canadian universities lost thousands of dollars because of Trudeau's government's stance. Amnesty International recently reported the Saudi activists have been brutally tortured in prison. 

Jamal Khashoggi was another critic of the jailing of the activists. As a graduate of Indiana State University, Khashoggi was partially a product of the U.S. educational system, which embraces human rights such as free speech. Khashoggi wanted Saudi people to have the right to speak freely, but he was inhumanely silenced. The silencing of political activists is the MO under the current Saudi regime. 

Ninety-nine percent of the Saudi students I've worked with have never uttered a word of criticism of the leadership of their country in the classroom. In fact, when the issue of free speech comes up, Saudi students often illustrate—with the gesture of cutting a throat —that they cannot and will not engage in any criticism of their government in public. In other words, Saudis have always known that there are grim consequences of criticizing their government. 

Saudis, like Jamal Khashoggi, are paying with their lives for speaking up. The mutually beneficial cultural exchange between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia comes to naught if the United States supports Saudi Arabia in the practice of brutally silencing journalists and activists. If we believe in and teach free speech, we should also be prepared to stand up for it, even if it means a lost arms deal or higher oil prices. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.