'Skullduggery': Washington think tank says 'no' to Saudi funds

Yahoo News photo illustration; photo: Getty Images
Yahoo News photo illustration; photo: Getty Images

A prominent Washington think tank that two years ago received a $2 million grant from the Saudi Embassy will stop taking money from the kingdom and is pulling out of cultural programs funded by the Gulf state as a result of the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the organization’s chairman.

“We had a board meeting this week to decide on that and the board was unanimous that no, under the current circumstances, we don’t think it’s appropriate to take Saudi government money,” Richard Clarke, chairman of the Middle East Institute, who served as White House counterterrorism adviser under President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush, said in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.”

As part of its new stance, Clarke said, the Middle East Institute was also pulling out of educational and cultural programs it had organized that were bankrolled with Saudi funds. One such program is an “Arab Art and Education Initiative” that was to include an exhibit on Syrian refugees at the Brooklyn Museum and a seminar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Middle East Institute is hardly the only Washington think tank that has been funded with Saudi cash and is now wrestling with how to handle the issue in light of mounting evidence that Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime who wrote for the Washington Post, may have been brutally murdered and his body dismembered after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

But it is unclear exactly how far the Middle East Institute’s new policy goes. Clarke measured his words, saying the institute won’t accept any Saudi funds “at the moment.” He said the organization also won’t return any of the $2 million it had previously received from the Saudi Embassy in Washington because those funds have already been spent. (Like many D.C.-based think tanks, the Middle East Institute receives generous support from foreign governments, including a donation of more than $1 million in 2017 from the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of the Saudis).

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

Clarke, who worked with the Saudis on counterterrorism issues while serving in the White House, said the institute had a relationship with Khashoggi. “He came to our meetings; he was on our panels,” he said. The apparent Saudi decision to murder him and dismember his body seems inexplicable, he added. “You can’t come up with a rational reason for doing this,” he said. “Maybe they were trying to send a message to other dissidents: This is what happens to you.”

In the end, Clarke said, he fully expects that ongoing investigations will “reveal [Khashoggi] was killed by Saudi intelligence officials in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. “

Jamal Khashoggi, then general manager of a new Arabic news channel, speaks at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain, in December 2014. (Photo: Hasan Jamali/AP)
Jamal Khashoggi, then general manager of a new Arabic news channel, speaks at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain, in December 2014. (Photo: Hasan Jamali/AP)

“The question then arises: Who ordered that? Who approved that?” he added. “We can assume it was fairly high up. The idea that it was some rogue decision seems extremely unlikely given that this sort of thing has never been done before by the Saudis.”

But Clarke said it is also unlikely that the assassination of Khashoggi will ever be pinned directly on Mohammed bin Salman, the impulsive crown prince. U.S. officials suspect he is likely to have been aware of the intelligence operation that targeted the journalist. Instead, the Saudis are more likely to throw some lesser officials “under the bus” by arresting them and announcing a shakeup of its ministers.

“I’m not really sure we’ll know if the crown prince approved it,” Clarke said.


More “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News: