U.C. dean dismisses student charges on tainted funds

A U.C. Berkeley dean has dismissed a student report accusing the campus' Center for Middle Eastern Studies of accepting money with terrorist ties as slipshod, "undergraduate journalism."

"Unfortunately, it seems the students have done copious research, but they never contacted anybody in the university for comment on anything they were writing on," said Professor David Leonard, dean of the International and Area Studies Department, which oversees the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

He was referring to a story that appeared last week in the Berkeley Jewish Journal, a monthly student periodical. The story drew widespread media attention across the country.

"As it happens, the people about whom they were writing — if I assume what they're saying about these people is true — but those people had nothing to do with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies."

In just its fourth edition, the Journal touted the CMES' "large endowment" from Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who is a primary defendant in a $100 trillion suit filed by families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Journal also noted funding from Xenel Industries. The Journal claimed Xenel CEO Abdullah Alireza sits on the board of a Swiss bank co-founded and used as a terror dispensary by Osama bin Laden.

Yet neither the sultan nor Abdullah Alireza have a direct tie to U.C. Berkeley, according to Leonard.

Leonard said the $5 million endowment comes not from the sultan but his charitable foundation, a difference he likened to "receiving a check from John D. Rockefeller or the John D. Rockefeller Foundation."

Journal founding editor Robert Enayati stressed that the sultan's own Web site claims the sultan's personal money is included in the foundation, which Leonard did not deny.

The dean, however, claimed the sultan is "quite an elderly man at this point," and that the foundation is run by his sons, who have dealt directly with U.C. Berkeley. One of those sons is Prince Bandar — the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States and a man known as "Bandar Bush" in some circles for his close ties to the president's family.

"Senior members of the Bush administration have closer connections to these people than we do," said Leonard.

Regarding Xenel Industries, Leonard claims the Journal has got the wrong Alireza.

Leonard said donations to the CMES have come, personally, from Khalid Alireza — a Xenel founding partner and U.C. Berkeley alum — and not Abdullah Alireza, whom Leonard had never heard of. Leonard said he was unsure why Xenel Industries is frequently listed on the CMES Web site and literature as a donor to the center's Al-Falah program. Leonard claims the money always has been donated individually by Khalid Alireza, whose son, Raiid, is also a U.C. Berkeley alum.

Leonard added that Khalid Alireza informed him on Tuesday that his brother, Abdullah, is now Saudi Arabia's minister of state and has severed his ties with Xenel Industries.

"Part of what they did, they tried to do very carefully," said Leonard, regarding the Journal. But "it's called student journalism for a reason. They don't always get everything right."

Enayati called the university's response to the article "a complete disappointment."

"When we first issued the report, we thought the university's response would be to look into it and give a formal response," he said.

"We want them to actually address the specific parts of this report."

Instead, CMES Vice Chair Emily Gottreich wrote an angry e-mail to the media, accusing the Journal of "giving voice only to the most extreme form of right-wing Zionism," and being "racist" in selectively portraying the CMES as completely staffed by professors with Arab- or Muslim-sounding names.

Gottreich also noted "legal implications" over the Journal's use of the CMES logo on its cover.

In attempting to paint them as extremists, Enayati said the CMES was hoping to deflect the spotlight and discredit the writers of the article. He also angrily rejected the charge of racism, stating that the Journal investigated every name the CMES listed on its Web site.

Journal staffers fed those names into Web search engines such as Google, Lexis Nexis and Pathfinder, which provided the bulk of the information used for the article.

"They keep saying I'm racist against Middle Easterners," Enayati said. "I'm Persian myself. That shows you how ridiculous that attack is."

Leonard adamantly denied that Saudi money — regardless of terror ties — is influencing U.C. Berkeley researchers to ignore the darker side of Saudi Arabia.

"I suggest you read Professor [Kiren Aziz] Chaudhry's book on Saudis," he said with a laugh.

A list of programs funded under the Al-Falah program include grants to Jewish graduate students and professors, such as William "Ze'ev" Brinner, and studies of Sufis — whom Saudi Wahhabi Muslims consider to be heretics.

"Please," said Leonard, "judge us by what we do."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.