'Slush fund' rocks Lebanon university: Money paid to maintain the country's medical standards has caused a scandal at a leading institution, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut

OVER THE gates of the American University of Beirut, there is inscribed in stone the aspiration of its 1866 founder, Daniel Bliss: 'That they may have life and have it more abundantly.'

For the past three years, however, it seems that at least 18 professors have been living life more abundantly, courtesy of a secret fund partly provided, according to its originator, by the millionaire Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, and administered without the knowledge of the university's American directors.

The AUB is one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the Middle East. Its graduates include government ministers in Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; two Lebanese ex-militia leaders - Bassam Abu Sharif of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - and the Palestinian hijacker, Leila Khaled.

The university's American president - who has not dared to visit Beirut since he was given his current job - has now fired the AUB's Arab deputy president, a much admired doctor called Ibrahim Salti, for the 'judgemental error' of keeping the fund secret from the university's US trustees.

After surviving bombardments, kidnappings, car bombings and murders through 15 years of civil war, the university should have been allowed to enjoy the fruits of peace. Its Christian students once shelled the campus; its 1984 American president was assassinated outside his office. But it was this very same civil war that led to the private financial 'arrangements' and scandalised Frederic Herter, the university's president, in New York. And, despite the ironic tone of the letter in which Mr Herter fired his deputy, both Dr Salti and Mr Hariri appear to have behaved with Lebanon's best interests at heart.

Indeed, another AUB doctor, Najib Abu Haidar, has proudly announced that he himself instituted the 'special administered fund' - his words - to help academic staff weather the inflationary years of the civil war and has paid tribute to Mr Hariri's help. Beirut newspapers have reported that as well as contributions from Mr Hariri, the fund was known to Fouad Sinyoura, a member of Mr Hariri's cabinet who was general manager of the Mediterranean Bank, in which the fund was allegedly kept.

According to one senior member of the AUB academic staff, the motives were simple. With the collapse of the Lebanese pound - from 2.5 to 2,000 to the dollar in 15 years - many of the university's medical staff were on the point of emigrating to the US. In a last-minute, and ultimately successful, effort to retain their services, Mr Abu Haidar, Mr Hariri and other unnamed donors set up a system of secret dollar payments for at least 18 doctors and medical staff who decided, as a result, to stay on in Lebanon and maintain the country's best-run health service.

'Medical doctors were beginning to leave,' the AUB academic said last week. 'Many of them had American residence cards or US nationality. About 18 of them got special payments in secret, without paying income tax, and they stayed on. It wasn't a big fund. Maybe only dollars 300,000 (pounds 200,000) was paid out. Things went wrong when one of the doctors found he was no longer getting paid. He wrote to the deans and to Herter. Herter called Salti - who knew about it but hadn't told Herter.'

In retrospect, it is clear that the payments - already referred to in Beirut as a 'slush fund' - should have been publicised from the start; to maintain a country's medical standards in wartime is scarcely a crime, even if the methods used on this occasion were, at least in American eyes, somewhat unorthodox. But the secrecy with which the money was paid out and the tone of Mr Herter's letter of dismissal have led to bitter debates on a campus that has always prided itself on being the most radical in the region.

'For over a year,' Mr Herter wrote in a message to students last week, 'Dr Salti has spoken repeatedly of his desire to move back to his cherished (and less encumbered) career in medicine . . . I can no longer refuse him.' At once, many Muslim students and at least one of Beirut's daily newspapers suspected another motive. With the US reportedly on the point of lifting its travel ban on American citizens who wish to visit Lebanon, the university's New York administrators wanted to 'purge' Arabs from the AUB's senior ranks before sending American academics back to Beirut to take their places.

However conspiratorial this may sound, Dr Salti has certainly made known some original views on the future of the university. Almost all teaching at the university is in English but in a lecture last year, he advocated the long-term 'Arabisation' of AUB, albeit with a series of carefully drawn up conditions and a time-frame involving several decades.

Although his suggestion was made 'in the spirit of open-mindedness which AUB has taught us', it can hardly have delighted the univerisity's administration in New York.

Mr Herter has appointed Samir Makdissi - the popular professor of business studies and a former Lebanese minister of economy - to take Dr Salti's place.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk