Controversial Saudi-Syrian billionaire criticised for reportedly wanting to name new building after former Prime Minister
The Iron Lady might be returning to Oxford to take her place amongst the venerated names of John Radcliffe, John Ruskin, and Jacqueline du Pré, who have all had buildings named after them, if a Syrian-Saudi billionaire gets his way.
Wafic Saïd, the main benefactor of the Saïd Business School (SBS), wants to name the new building on Park End Street after his close friend Margaret Thatcher. Saïd revealed his intentions in an interview with The Spectator, although the University has not confirmed the businessman’s proposal.
The Spectator magazine reported, in an interview with Saïd: “In the second phase of his business school, which is now under way, Saïd is determined to name the building after her, even if this provokes opposition from some of the dons.”
A University spokesperson said: “Lead donors are usually able to name buildings and Mr Saïd has a clear right in this respect. For the time being, no final decision has been taken as to whether the building should be named. There is an established process for naming academic buildings in Oxford, which the Saïd Business School would follow.”
The former Prime Minister has already been recognised through the Margaret Thatcher Centre at Somerville, where she studied Chemistry from 1943 until 1947. However, since Thatcher has no formal links with the SBS, the proposal is likely to face criticism from academics and students.
Bernard Sufrin, a fellow at Worcester College since 1983 said: “It is inconceivable that Congregation would accede to such a naming. I cannot imagine any senior executive officer of the University who has a sense of history, or of the mood of the University, considering proposing this naming openly. But if by some miracle of undemocratic deviousness) such a name were affixed to a building in the Saïd school, I cannot imagine that it would remain unadorned by graffiti for very long unless Mr Saïd were prepared to endow a permanent graffiti patrol.
“If the tale of his wishes is true,” Sufrin continued, “then perhaps Mr Saïd could be advised that a much more realistic way of attempting to memorialize the former Prime Minister would be for him to make a large donation to the fund for the new Royal Yacht that is being proposed by the present Prime Minister, and ask for it to be called the ”Lady Thatcher”.”
Sufrin added that he was concerned about how much credit Saïd was getting for the Business School when the University pays comparable sums towards it.
Another don, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “[It is] a very extraordinary system indeed: it seems inconceivable that a university which refused Thatcher the honour of an unearned degree would be delighted to devote name an entire school after her, particularly at the very moment when her party is pursuing such a radical version of the university reforms which she initiated. I would imagine that Congregation have the power to block this.”
Ella-Mae Lewis, a second-year Historian, said: “Whilst Saïd’s wishes should be respected, a building named after such an, at best controversial, and at worst extremely destructive political leader is very, very public. I think many people would find it offensive.”
However, Ollie Johnson, a second-year at Exeter, said: “I think Mr Saïd is perfectly correct to name the new business school after Baroness Thatcher.” Accusing the academic sphere of a “left-wing bias”, he added: “It is often forgotten that for every pound of state spending Margaret Thatcher removed from Higher Education, the private sector replaced it with two more.”
First year Phil Bell added: “I think they should honour the intentions of Saïd, I don’t think the name of a building means a great deal. It doesn’t mean they agree with her policies.”
Oliver Hutchings, a second-year German student, said: “It’s quite usual to name buildings in universities after distinguished alumni. This includes politicians and is normally done regardless of the policies they pursued when in government. I don’t see why Baroness Thatcher should be made an exception.”
Both Saïd, 72, and Thatcher are controversial figures, especially at Oxford. Saïd is most famous – or notorious – for securing the Al-Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Although he has always insisted he is “not an arms-dealer”, the opening of the SBS in November 2001 was marred by student protests. He has donated over £20m for the initial building and a further £15m for the new one.
Thatcher became the first Oxford-educated Prime Minister since the Second World War to be refused an honorary degree from the University. A vote in Congregation was defeated 738-319 in 1985 amidst cuts to education funding.
A spokesperson for Somerville College said: “Somerville always welcomes any celebration of Margaret Thatcher’s achievements. The College honours her itself in various ways, including in our beautiful Margaret Thatcher Conference Centre, and we hope to continue to do so in the future.”
Saïd, 72, and Thatcher have been good friends since their work together on the Al-Yamamah deal, and he has called himself “a great admirer” of the Conservative politician. When she retired, Saïd offered Thatcher an open invitation to Tusmore, his Oxfordshire estate. A photograph of Thatcher reportedly sits prominently on his office desk.
The new building is due to open this year to accommodate additional facilities. It has been designed by Dixon Jones, the award-winning architects of the first building at the school. The firm’s other work includes the Royal Opera House in London and an extension to the National Portrait Gallery.