Saturday, September 26, 2009

St. Thomas business magazine halts profile of Saudi alum

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A University of St. Thomas alumnus from Saudi Arabia said Friday that the president of the Roman Catholic university blocked a school publication from running a profile about him out of concern it would harm efforts to recruit Saudi students.

Ali al-Ahmed, 42, who earned his master's in international management from St. Thomas, is director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, which describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank on Mideast and Islamic issues. The profile was written for B., the magazine of the St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, and had been in the works for more than a year, al-Ahmed said.

The Rev. Dennis Dease, the university's president, asked St. Thomas' publications director, Brian Brown, not to publish it, according to an e-mail from Brown to al-Ahmed on Wednesday that al-Ahmed supplied to The Associated Press.

St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes denied that Dease killed the story, but said the university decided not to run it without a response from the Saudi government, to ensure the story is accurate and out of respect for Saudi students.

The profile included al-Ahmed's views on human rights in Saudi Arabia and his assertion that he was a political prisoner there for a month when he was a teenager.

"Without a chance to get both sides of the story in, for the government to respond to Ali's allegations, the story wouldn't be balanced," Hennes said.

The profile's author left two phone messages with the Saudi embassy seeking comment but never heard back, Brown's e-mail said.

Hennes said he didn't know if the magazine was still actively seeking a Saudi response. He said if the magazine ever does hear back from the Saudis, school officials would then have to decide whether to run the profile.

Al-Ahmed said he was "disappointed tremendously" in Dease for "trying to please Saudi Arabia" at the expense of the university's alumni and academic freedom.

"To have an American university, a Catholic father, to be afraid and so worried about Saudi actions, that is not a good sign," al-Ahmed said.

The profile originally was set for the spring 2009 issue, but the dean of the business college, Christopher Puto, raised concerns "about some of the more contentious information," particularly about time al-Ahmed spent imprisoned in his home country, the e-mail said.

"Dean Puto's primary reason — and I think it's a valid one — is that he knew our president, Father Dennis Dease, was doing some work with the Saudi government in recruiting young Saudi students to attend St. Thomas," Brown wrote to al-Ahmed.

Brown added that he decided to hold the profile for a later issue and asked the author to contact the Saudi Arabian embassy for comment. He said the embassy did not return the writer's calls. Once some revisions were complete, Brown sent the profile to Dease, mentioning the author had contacted the embassy.

"News of this action caused Father Dease a great deal of concern, and he believes that our actions may have jeopardized his working relationship with the embassy. There is no evidence that this is the case. Nevertheless, Father Dease has asked me to hold the profile indefinitely," Brown wrote to al-Ahmed.

Al-Ahmed said he became a political prisoner in 1981 at age 14 when he was arrested along with his parents and most of his siblings. He said he was held for a month, and that his family members have been arrested many times for advocating U.S.-style rights and freedoms in the conservative kingdom.

Al-Ahmed later came to Minnesota to attend Winona State University, earning a journalism degree in 1996. He said his father warned him not to return home because he faced arrest, so he went to graduate school. He said he was granted political asylum in 1998 while at St. Thomas, where he earned his graduate degree in 1999.

"In my mind the American model was my aspiration," al-Ahmed said. "The American human experience has been, in my personal view, one of the most successful in human history."

Al-Ahmed said he founded his think tank, originally known as the Saudi Institute, in 2001 to advocate for human rights. It publishes studies and sponsors events, and since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks he has frequently given national media interviews on terrorism and Middle Eastern affairs.

"You have an inspiring story — the sort of story our audience would be very interested to read," Brown wrote to al-Ahmed.

In 2007, Dease decided not to invite Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu to appear at an event on campus because he was worried the South African archbishop's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would offend Jews. Dease later changed his mind and re-invited Tutu, but Tutu declined and organizers held it at another local college instead. Star Tribune

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