Next week, the Council on Foreign Relations will be hosting a panel about prospects for negotiation with Iran, moderated in part by Nicholas Burns, a former State Department undersecretary for political affairs and George W. Bush’s chief Iran negotiator. Burns’s new title, however, befits someone still following the Iran relationship: He is the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Oman, of course, like the other Gulf monarchies, is firmly opposed to a nuclear Iran, so, in this case, his title is hardly at odds with American interests. But, given that the sultan is an authoritarian monarch, a professorship in his name seems rather out of place at an American university that prides itself on liberality. But it’s actually not exceptional: American universities preach the gospel of tolerance and human rights, but are happy to open their arms for the lucre, particularly petrodollars, of some remarkably illiberal figures.
Burns’s chair was endowed in 1999, in the name of Sultan Qaboos bin Said (there is also a chair in the Sultan’s name at Australia’s University of Melbourne). The Sultan of Oman shackles his nation’s media with one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world, and Freedom House rates the sultanate, on a scale of 1 (freest) to 7 (least free), a 5.5, making it “unfree.” Their Arab Spring protests resulted in hundreds of arrests — the Omani movement eventually subsided not because the royal family granted any new political freedoms, but because they essentially bought off the populace with lump-sum payments and new government jobs.
In 2005, Saudi prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz gave $20 million to both Harvard University and Georgetown University to establish centers for Islamic studies. At Georgetown, the prince’s gift funds the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the university’s vaunted School of Foreign Service. Saudi Arabia may be an American ally in the Middle East, but it is also one of the most repressive nations in the world. Leaving aside Saudi Arabia’s gross violations of the rights of all its citizens, the royal family doesn’t appear to have any more than an academic interest in “Muslim-Christian understanding”: The kingdom lacks even one Christian church. Further, it’s worth noting that, in 2005, Harvard still had a ban on ROTC because the Defense Department’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy supposedly violated the university’s high-minded non-discrimination rules — and still agreed to honor the rulers of Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is punishable by death.
Another Croesan Gulf monarchy, Bahrain, is nearly as obscure as Oman, but has gotten much attention recently for its brutal crackdown on democratic protesters, resulting in as many as 90 deaths (which, in a country the size of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, would be equivalent to thousands of deaths). But students at American University would already be familiar with the name of the Khalifa family that rules over Bahrain with an iron fist: In exchange for a 2010 donation of $3 million, the university renamed the main atrium at its School of International Studies after Bahrain’s crown prince.