Over 20% of foreign money at 2 Ga. universities is from Saudi Arabia

After a series of recent protests sparked by the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some have questioned whether universities should continue accepting money from Saudi Arabia, The New York Times reported.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology began "reassessing" its relationship with the country after Khashoggi's October 2018 death, which the United Nations found was likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. At Harvard University, an administrator said the school would stop reserving seats in a summer program for Saudi students sponsored by bin Salman's foundation, The Times reported.

In Georgia, two of the state’s top universities still have Saudi contracts. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Georgia Tech and Emory University if The Washington Post reporter’s death will affect their relationships with the country in the future. From their responses, that is not clear.

The Department of Education’s foreign gift log tracked money given to U.S. colleges and universities from other countries from 2012 to 2018. Collectively, Saudi benefactors sent more than $10.6 billion to U.S. colleges and universities in that period.

The log shows money from Saudi universities, companies and government agencies account for more than a fifth at Tech and Emory.

At Tech, Saudi contracts made up 25% of foreign funds and totaled about $14.7 million, the largest amount, according to an AJC analysis of the database. At Emory University, the Saudi amount was nearly 22%, second only to England, and totaled around $8.4 million.

Georgia Tech most recently accepted $280,000 from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, named after bin Salman’s uncle, in December 2018. Eight of the 20 Saudi payments Tech accepted in the six years documented in the log came from King Abdullah University, as part of an ongoing research contract to study sensors for personalized health monitoring. The school makes a distinction between money given as a gift and money given through research contracts.

“Georgia Tech places a high value on ethical and moral conduct and participates in research collaborations that adhere to those values,” the school said in a statement. “There was not a gift accepted in December of 2018 … (The contract) is a continuation of an ongoing project that started in 2016 and is scheduled to continue until 2020.”

Aramco Services Company, the U.S. arm of Saudi Arabia-based Aramco — one of the largest oil companies in the world, which is partially owned by Texaco, Exxon and Mobil — was another frequent contributor.

Georgia Tech has contracts with these institutions, along with two other Saudi universities, for eight research projects such as information security training and the development of a solar gas turbine system. These contracts total close to $7 million. The university has not received any corporate donations from Saudi Arabia in 2019, and no foreign gifts were withheld from the log, aside from a $5 private donation from a Saudi student, according to a Georgia Tech spokesperson.

The University of Georgia has no active Saudi contracts for services but received a payment in 2012, from King Abdulaziz University, a public institution named for the country’s first monarch. The $286,000 was used to fund the research of a UGA faculty member and two of his research partners, who attended King Abdulaziz University, according to a UGA spokesperson. Most of UGA’s foreign aid came from France.

Georgia Tech and UGA are public colleges. At Emory University, a private school, most Saudi money came from the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission. The SACM website says its mission is “to administer programs and policies to meet the educational and cultural needs of Saudis studying in the United States.”

The agency grants scholarships to these students, which were paid to Emory as “fees for service, not a donation,” the school said in a statement.

Recipients must major in specific types of engineering, medicine, accounting, law, computer science or other studies approved by the country’s Ministry of Education. The student must also attend a school ranked in the top 100 globally, as determined by the ministry, according to its website, which was translated for this story.

The SACM monies have gone to students enrolled in Emory’s schools of arts and sciences, medicine and public health, the statement said. SACM could not be reached for comment.

The other contribution to Emory came from the Jazan University School of Medicine. Aside from Saudi contracts, Emory also received large amounts of aid from Canadian, English and Swiss donors. At Georgia Tech, English, Chinese and South Korean patrons also gave top amounts.

No other Georgia schools were listed as having received money from Saudi institutions.