The University of Portsmouth has defended a contract to train military engineers in Oman after a campaign group warned that the deal would enable “internal repression”.
In April, the university announced that it had won a “prestigious contract” to help develop four military engineering degrees for Oman’s Military Technological College.
The government-funded college expects to enrol 1,000 students in September, and up to 4,200 students will be trained in total, the university said.
Oman is a sultanate in which criticism of the absolute ruler, Qaboos bin Said, is forbidden and political parties are outlawed.
Amnesty International has accused the Gulf state’s security forces of killing at least one protester during demonstrations in 2011 after rubber bullets and tear gas were fired into a crowd.
Oman is deemed “not free” by the Washington-based thinktank Freedom House, although it is ranked as less oppressive than its neighbour Saudi Arabia.
A spokeswoman from the Campaign Against Arms Trade said that the military engineers would be “using, supporting and maintaining” the country’s weapons - including warships, fighter jets and small arms sold to Oman by the UK.
“Oman has an authoritarian government and there is a real likelihood that this weaponry will be used for internal repression or in regional conflict,” she said.
Djamel Ait-Boudaoud, dean of Portsmouth’s faculty of technology, said that Oman was a “major strategic and business partner of the United Kingdom”.
“The university’s involvement in the country will strengthen Portsmouth’s engagement in the Middle East, where we have long been a destination of choice for students looking for advanced training in engineering and technology,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Portsmouth declined to reveal how much the university was being paid for the deal, citing commercial confidentiality.
A motion calling for a survey of military and industrial funding of UK universities was debated and carried at the University and College Union’s annual congress on 29-31 May.
The motion called on the union to “name and shame funders and universities involved in bad practices”.
UK university links to Middle Eastern and North African regimes came under scrutiny in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, when it was revealed that the London School of Economics had signed a deal to help train elite civil servants in Libya, then ruled by Mu’ammer Gaddafi.
The publicity surrounding the school’s links with the regime eventually led to the resignation of its director, Sir Howard Davies.
However, a subsequent investigation by Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, found that the £2.2 million training contract was “clearly of merit” and was something the university should have been engaged in.