Debate Magazine

Scientists Sell Souls to Saudis

Posted on the 12 December 2011 by Cris

In today’s news we learn that Saudi Arabia is on the one hand buying Western academic prestige and on the other beheading a woman accused of practicing “sorcery and witchcraft.”

The state-run Saudi news agency announced that a woman named Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar was publicly beheaded because she claimed to be a healer who could cure ailments for a fee of $800. The religious police arrested her for practicing “witchcraft,” which in this case sounds like a euphemism for faith healing outside of Wahabbist orthodoxy. In Saudi Arabia it is perfectly acceptable to pray to Allah for healing but it is a death sentence to appeal to any other kinds of spirits or forces for healing.

Scientists Sell Souls to Saudis

In an interview with Bikya Masr, a Saudi activist complained: “It is wrong and disgusting to kill anyone in this way. Doing this just gets people thinking we live in the Dark Ages.” It apparently would be better if the unorthodox faith healer had been executed in some other less disgusting way. Saudis are living in a high-tech version of the Dark Ages, even if executions remain low-tech.

At the same time Science reports the Saudis are pumping billions of dollars into flagship universities “to help the country move from an oil-based to a knowledge economy.” It goes without saying that only certain kinds of narrow scientific and technological knowledge are acceptable.

This, however, hasn’t deterred at least 60 scientists from accepting yearly stipends of $72,000 for doing little more than naming Saudi universities as affiliate institutions on all their academic publications. Such listings result in higher rankings for Saudi universities.

Scientists can rationalize this however they want and when money is being offered, they will. Neil Robertson, a mathematics professor at Ohio State, commented:

It’s just capitalism. They have the capital and they want to build something out of it. Yes, visibility is very important to them, but they also want to start a Ph.D. program in mathematics. I’m thinking this might be a breath of fresh air in a closed society.

Robertson is “hopeful that outside influence” will help accelerate social reforms in the Kingdom. Unless Robertson can devise equations which prove that beheading a woman for unorthodox beliefs is wrong, I can’t see it happening. Scientists and other academics should think hard about selling their souls to the Saudis.

Scientists Sell Souls to Saudis

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