Even if Algonquin College’s campuses in Saudi Arabia become profitable in the future, the project should be seriously rethought. The vice president of Algonquin’s faculty union, Jack Wilson, has been a vocal opponent to the treatment of activist Raif Badawi and the college’s involvement with the Saudi government. Furthermore, according to the 2013/14 financial report available on Algonquin’s website, the investment loss in Algonquin College Saudi Arabia was $730,000. The fact that the venture might be losing money should raise concerns with those who are indifferent to the questionable morality of the situation.
In 2013, Algonquin opened the doors of its campus in Saudi Arabia, after beating out 190 other post-secondary institutions in a bid by the Saudi government to improve its college system. More recently, they were approved two new campuses in the country, one of which will be exclusively for women, since like many things in Saudi Arabia, education is gender-segregated.
In fact, Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive or get a divorce without permission from a male guardian. They only recently gained the right to vote, and the 2015 elections will be the first in which women can run. These oppressive laws are the result of the Wahhabi school of Islam, an ultra-conservative denomination that follows their own strict interpretation of Sharia law and promotes a literalist view of Islamic teachings.
The Wahhabis were instrumental in the formation of the Saudi state and hold lots of sway among conservative citizens. While King Abdullah and the royal family have made steps to modernize the country, they are reliant upon the Wahhabi clerics to maintain their control over the conservative masses. To appease these zealots, who oppose the gradual Westernization of the country, the monarchy allows the religious police to carry out barbaric practices like public beheadings and beatings.
One story has caught the attention of media recently, since the victim’s family obtained asylum in Quebec. Raif Badawi is a Saudi activist and writer who also created the website Free Saudi Liberals. He was arrested in 2012 for insulting Islam online and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison. The first round of 50 lashes was carried out on Jan. 9, and the most recent round had to be cancelled since Badawi’s previous wounds still hadn’t healed.
His only crimes were blogging about free speech and human rights, which is something the monarchy has effectively denied its citizens in order to stay in power. This absurdly harsh punishment has received criticism from Amnesty International and many activists worldwide.
I would like to question the need for an Algonquin campus in Saudi Arabia. While some might argue that making Western education available for Saudis is an admirable goal, it’s definitely not admirable to be doing business with a government that is depriving its citizens of basic human rights. It is hypocritical to be involved with a brutish dictatorship while claiming to be an innovative and forward-thinking institution. I wonder if Algonquin’s core values of diversity and equity are advertised in their gender segregated campuses. Any way you spin it, Algonquin College Saudi Arabia is a hard venture to justify, and needs to be examined thoroughly in the future.