Syrian funding causes embarrassment at British university

imageUniversity of St Andrews to review acceptance of funding arranged by Bashar al-Assad’s controversial regime in Damascus A prestigious British university is to review the work of one of its academic research centres because its funding was arranged by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Guardian can reveal.

The University of St Andrews, where Prince William and Kate Middleton studied, has received more than £100,000 in funding for its centre for Syrian studies with the assistance of Syria’s ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami.

Following questions from the Guardian about its relations with figures associated with the regime – and “in view of significant international concerns about recent events in Syria” – a spokesman for St Andrews said the university would be reviewing the centre’s work “to ensure its high academic standards are maintained”.

The university’s association with the Assad regime has come under scrutiny in the wake of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria which is estimated to have claimed 450 lives so far.

In addition to Khiyami, who the Foreign Office confirmed last night had been invited to the royal wedding, the centre’s board of advisers also boasts figures closely associated with the Damascus regime, including Fawaz Akhras, the charismatic British-based cardiologist who is not only Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, but also acts as a gatekeeper for the family, screening British journalists before they are granted an interview with his daughter Asma al-Assad or his son-in-law.

Akhras is also the founder of the British Syrian Society, which has organised visits to Damascus and meetings with Bashar al-Assad for sympathetic members of parliament, as well as organising an investment conference in London to introduce British, European and Arab businesses to Syrian government ministers.

Opened in November 2006 as part of the university’s school of international relations, funding for the centre was only secured with the assistance of Khiyami, who, according to the centre’s head, Prof Raymond Hinnebusch, persuaded Syrian-born British businessman Ayman Asfari to pay for it.

Asfari is head of Petrofac, the London and Aberdeen-based oil and gas services company, which is a partner of the Syrian government in two major projects in the country worth $1bn, according to the company’s figures.

The latest embarrassing disclosure over connections between a British university and an authoritarian Arab regime follows the row that engulfed the London School of Economics over its links with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

Supporters of the centre and of Hinnebusch – including the author Patrick Seale, who is an adviser to the centre – insist on the necessity of engaging with Syria as it appeared to be grappling with reform, and stress the seriousness of its academic work.

But critics claim that British universities should have been far more vigilant before associating with regimes with a record of human rights and other abuses.

According to Hinnebusch, writing in the Syrian Studies Association newsletter last year: “Khiyami made the decisive breakthrough in finding a philanthropist who was willing to provide the funding to launch the centre.”

A well-known scholar on Syria, he insists that his centre supports “politically unbiased research”, and he has written that he believes Syria is “lamentably misunderstood in policy circles and in the western media where the over-amplified voices of special interest pundits are allowed to demonise all who oppose imperial plans for the region”.

Despite the fact that the opening of the centre came at a time when western governments were attempting to engage with Damascus, Syria remained – as it still does – a police state with few political freedoms or rights of free expression, and a state where human rights abuses continue. Among events organised by the centre, in partnership with the Orient Centre for International Studies based in Syria, was a conference in Damascus in 2008 with papers provided by a former adviser to Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s harshly authoritarian father who was implicated in numerous human rights abuses, and other pro-regime officials.

Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, who has called for an inquiry into universities’ links with despotic Middle Eastern regimes, said: “We need to learn from what’s happened with Libyan funding of our universities, that universities should not accept money from governments like Syria, or those with connections to the Syrian government. The danger is that you get compromised by the amount of money, and it inevitably influences your outlook on the Middle East. I’ve argued that universities that take money from dictatorships should receive a reduction in their public subsidy.”

The MP said he found it astonishing that St Andrews had not mentioned the relationship with Syria in response to a freedom of information request he submitted about donations from the Middle East or Africa since 2000.

Robin Simcox, who studied foreign funding of universities in a report for the Centre for Social Cohesion, said: “Universities take this money claiming they’re going to break down walls and open relations. What they end up doing is colluding with murderous family-run regimes. These universities have got it wrong. With the likes of Gaddafi, they say the people they’re taking money from are reformers. They’re notreformers, they’re tyrants.”

Sam Westrop, a spokesman for a student-run campaign to ensure ethical funding of universities, said that it would put pressure on St Andrews to explain its Syrian links.

However Niall Scott, a spokesman for St Andrews, said the centre for Syrian studies “was established with the assistance of a £105,000 donation from the Asfari foundation, a recognised UK charity, in 2007. This is the only external funding the centre has received. The salaries of CSS staff are paid directly by the university.

Its board of advisers comprises a cross-section of Syrian interests and viewpoints. From an academic standpoint, it is critical to be able to engage directly with all aspects of Syrian society in order to better understand the regime.

“The University of St Andrews assiduously and regularly reviews its research centres and institutes and is satisfied that the CSS has met the high academic and ethical standards required to function effectively and independently.

“In view, however, of significant international concerns about recent events in Syria, a further review of the centre is currently underway to ensure its high academic standards are maintained.”

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