James Hopkins talks about the relationship between the University and a Syrian Ambassador

An institution of the free world, supporting a politician that is silencing protestors in London. Anything wrong with the picture?

The escalation of violence in Syria poses the most serious threat to the people of the country, and it still continues to be a source of embarrassment for the University of St Andrews. The University drew a line under the whole affair regarding the Centre for Syrian Studies[1] (CSS) with a report by Chris Hawkesworth, which exonerated the university of any wrongdoing. However, the University has a continued problem of their association with the regime.

One curious part of the report is the apparent support the University gives the Syrian ambassador Sami al-Khiyami. He is one of the “Board’s [of Advisors, for the CSS] members, all of whom could be classed as ‘reformers’ who would like to help Syria move towards democratization”.

This would be news to Syrian pro-democracy protesters in London, who, over the summer, found themselves threatened and intimidated by the embassy of Sami Khiyami. Speaking to The Times and Amnesty International, various protesters have described being videoed by embassy staff. This information was passed on to the notorious secret police, who then threatened the family members of expatriates in order to, in their words, force the “dogs in London to behave.” According to a researcher at Amnesty this “appears to… [be part of] a systematic – sometimes violent – campaign to intimidate Syrians overseas into silence.” And the man the University believes is a reformer is up to his neck in it.

Aside from his role on the Board of Advisors, Khiyami has played a key role in the CSS. Indeed, Professor Raymond Hinnebusch wrote as late as 2010 that the CSS “would have remained a dream except for the intervention of Sami al-Khiyami.” This is because Khiyami “made the decisive breakthrough” with regards to finding a “philanthropist” to provide funding.

Clearly the University isn’t blessed with the gift of foresight, and it would be unfair to juxtapose these quotations with the words of the Syrian expatriates if this was unforeseeable. But this eventuality was hardly a bolt out of the blue. Khiyami serves a vicious regime and members of vicious regimes have a strange habit of not being particularly progressive. In fact, for a University famed for its International Relations department, and the studies of Syria in particular, it’s amazing how naïve they were about the nature of dictatorships. Hinnebusch, for example, wrote that Khiyami “had been appointed ambassador to bring fresh views and ideas to representing Syria in London.” But even now, when the allegations have been reported, the University has not to my awareness disassociated itself from Khiyami or criticised his actions.

The University strongly denies that links with Khiyami threaten academic independence. They distinguish between getting direct funding from the regime, and indirectly using them to get it from a legitimate third party, maintaining that the latter does not threaten impartiality. However, with regards to funding, there is no logical difference between using a contact for direct funding and using a contact as a vital intermediary in obtaining funding from a third party. Either way, the potential for future donations changes depending on the satisfaction of the contact. Even in medical research drug companies allegedly suppress research that finds their drugs to be unsafe. Of course the University can find other donors but criticising the Syrian regime, and thus annoying Khiyami, potentially limits the University’s capacity for finding future donations. This could feasibly create a threat to impartiality, as funding will be easier to obtain if publications don’t offend Khiyami.

The CSS will always retain the sad legacy that a man involved in threatening pro-democracy protesters in order to prop up a vile regime played a vital role in its formation, but the University has the opportunity to move beyond this by cutting off all ties with Sami Khiyami. Continuing to keep the association with the man, and any other members of repressive regimes, only undermines the reputation of the University. A man who threatens those campaigning for a better world has no place at St Andrews.


James Hopkins

Image Credit- Andy Hawkins

[1] The University would like us to point out that the original article alleging the Syrian regime arranged the funding, published in The Guardian, has been withdrawn, and apologies made to Ayman Asfari and the University, as well as unspecified damages being paid to Mr Asfari.