Written by Student Rights on 1 October 2012 at 4pm

Kuwaiti funding raises questions at Durham University

The news that Durham University accepted a gift of £2.5 million from the Kuwaiti royal Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah in September is a reminder that the sourcing of money from unethical regimes remains an issue in British higher education.

Al-Sabah, the nephew of Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, resigned as Prime Minister along with his cabinet in November 2011 over continuing allegations of corruption.

This was not the first time he had done so, resigning in November 2008 just before he was due to be questioned by parliament about bribery allegations, before being immediately reinstated as Prime Minister by his uncle.

Since then he had narrowly survived two further votes of no confidence, in December 2009 and January 2011 before finally being removed.

Despite Al-Sabah’s chequered record, Durham University appears to believe that accepting money from him does not contravene its ethical policy,

Vice Chancellor Professor Chris Higgins stated that “Durham University is extremely grateful for the generous support we have received from His Highness Sheik Nasser”.

Alongside allegations of corruption though, Kuwait is also a deeply undemocratic country, rated as only “partly free” by Freedom House in its ‘Freedom in the World 2012’ report. Formal political parties are banned and journalists who publish material that insults Islam or criticise the Emir face prison.

In June 2011 political activist Nasser Abul spent 111 days in prison convicted of contempt of religion after criticising the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on Twitter, while in 2010 another man served 62 days for criticising the Emir.

This is not the first time that Durham University has been criticised for accepting money from undemocratic regimes either.

In March 2011 Student Rights highlighted Durham’s “memorandum of understanding” with the Iranian government, of which Dr Colin Turner, a member of the institution’s Centre for Iranian Studies later stated “Iranian money comes with strings attached, as we have found to our chagrin”.

This included a fee of £10,000 from the Iranian government, as well as a seminar in January 2010 described as being monopolised by pro-regime speakers”.

Iranian PhD student Afshin Shahi later told the university newspaper that “Our vice-chancellor personally attended the event and astonishingly emphasised the need for “dialogue” and “debate” with the Islamic Republic. That was a very sad day for both human rights and Durham University”.

That Durham University does not seem to have learned its lesson from its previous dalliance with a repressive regime demonstrates that any talk of an ethical funding policy is often just that.

Here at Student Rights we would hope that the university will publish the due diligence documents that led to this donation being accepted and seriously consider returning Al-Sabah’s money.

If universities are to accept money from regimes like Kuwait they must be prepared to justify their actions openly and transparently.