‘No strings attached’ at SOAS?

This is a guest post by Robin Simcox

Potkin carried a story earlier this week about how two SOAS academics were pictured receiving awards from President Ahmadinejad. SOAS is one of those universities that have also previously accepted cash from the Iranian government – so it is heart-warming to see the closeness between the two remains.


One of those academics who met Ahmadinejad recently was Mohammad Abdel Haleem, King Fahd Professor of Islamic Studies at the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Near and Middle East, and Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at SOAS. This Centre was set up following a £1m donation from the Saudi government, specifically from King Fahd himself.

Haleem’s appointment at SOAS in June 1995 was a controversial one, coming in the context of thirty SOAS employees protesting the £1m donation that the university had received from King Fahd. One academic said at the time that ‘Saudi Arabia is known to have a certain agenda on Islam and there could be implications about accepting money from such a source’. However, according to Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, the academics were also angry that Haleem – who had been a lecturer at SOAS for several years – had been appointed to a professorship at the Centre without the post being advertised inside or outside the university. The reaction to the donations within SOAS led to the establishment of a working party in order to ‘codify the principles on working with sponsors’.

Haleem’s links to King Fahd go even further – he is also one of seven trustees at the Saudi-run King Fahd Academy, which offers primary and secondary school education and operates ‘under the support and supervision of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London’. This academy got itself into a spot of bother in 2007 after admitting that it used textbooks that called Jews ‘apes’ and Christians ‘pigs’. Perhaps he was unaware of the content of the textbooks – yet his willingness to accept patronage from Ahmadinejad is undoubtedly a black mark on his record.

Equally culpable are those universities who accept donations from such regimes in the first place, of which SOAS is a clear example. In correspondence with them last year, SOAS told me that their donation from Iran came with ‘no strings attached’ and that ‘The donations from Iran and Saudi Arabia have had no detrimental impact on the University’. Yet this week, Durham University – who have recently accepted cash from Iran themselves – admitted that they have ‘taken steps…to sever all financial ties with…any representatives of the Iranian regime’, as ‘Iranian money comes with strings attached’.

SOAS has obviously managed to retain a better working relationship with the Islamic Republic than Durham. It will be interesting to see how the other British universities that Iran tells us it has been in negotiations with – specifically to fund Islamic studies programmes – gets on.