Orange County District Keeps Controversial $105M Contract with Saudi Schools

AP Photo/Hasan Jamali
AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

A community college district in Orange County, California will keep its controversial $105 million consulting contract with two technical schools in Saudi Arabia, despite opponents who say the Middle Eastern country’s human rights record is incompatible with the district’s values.

The Rancho Santiago Community College District Board of Trustees met Monday to discuss the consulting agreement, which provides the Saudi schools with a teacher training program, infrastructure upgrades, and an updated curriculum in a deal estimated to be worth $105 million, according to the Orange County Register. The school district operates Santiago Canyon College and Santa Ana College.

District Chancellor Raul Rodriguez reportedly told trustees at Monday’s meeting that the continuation of the consulting agreement does not mean the district endorses or approves of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

“I personally find a lot of the things that I’ve read about–they’re horrible, even barbaric by our standards,” Rodriguez said at the meeting. “At the same time, I’m an educator. We can, in a small way, contribute to helping set the conditions in that country for change.”

Saudi Arabia has had a long, well-documented history of human rights abuses. A 2013 report by human rights organization Amnesty International found, in part, that “authorities severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly and clamped down on dissent,” while “…[W]omen were discriminated against in law and practice and inadequately protected against domestic and other violence.”

“They are not passive racists over there; they are aggressive racists,” Santa Ana College criminal justice professor George Wright told the Register. “They are very aggressive homophobics. They are very aggressive antisemites.”

Wright’s view was echoed by roughly ten other school district Board members and employees at Monday’s meeting, each of whom voiced different concerns about the contract.

The contract reportedly did not require Board approval, as it was set up by the school district’s fundraising foundation at an earlier date. Still, opponents reminded trustees that they have the power to overturn the agreement, and urged them to do so. The Register reports that no formal action was taken on the contract at Monday’s meeting.