UNESCO said Tuesday it had no plans “at this time” to renew an agreement with an alleged Saudi Arabian spy and former Twitter employee who fled the United States. A UNESCO spokesperson said it would decide whether to continue the program after it evaluates this round. Ali Alzabarah, the ex-Twitter employee, is currently being tried in absentia in a federal court in San Francisco.
The agreement, signed in September 2018 by Alzabarah, CEO of the Misk Initiatives Center — a branch of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Misk Foundation — and Hong Kwon, then the HR director at UNESCO, stipulated that the UN agency would accept at least three trainees from Misk for 6- to 12-month rotations. Misk would pay the trainees.
A little more than a year later, in November 2019, the FBI released a complaint alleging that Alzabarah, while working at Twitter in 2015, accessed confidential user data and passed it to a Saudi official. In February, BuzzFeed News reported on Alzabarah’s escape and the deep access he had to Twitter’s systems as a site reliability engineer.
Alzabarah, according to the complaint, fled to Saudi Arabia on Dec. 3, 2015, the morning after Twitter executives confronted him. He subsequently became a top official in the crown prince’s foundation, which invests in youth causes.
UNESCO doesn’t plan to accept another group of trainees from the Misk Foundation “at this time,” spokesperson George Papagiannis told BuzzFeed News.
Following publication, Papagiannis provided a second statement. "At this time, there is no recruitment process underway, as we are in the midst of the current group of trainees,” he said. “Following an evaluation of this round, a decision would be made on the continuation of the program for another group."
The trainee program, first reported by Inner City Press, currently has 16 trainees across the agency's headquarters in Paris and field offices. UNESCO is the arm of the UN that works to bring member nations together through various projects fighting hate and promoting tolerance.
Alzabarah and another former Twitter employee, Ahmad Abouammo, currently face charges in US federal court for acting as undeclared agents of the Saudi government. Abouammo, who remained in the US, appeared in a federal courthouse last month for a status hearing on his case. The next hearing is scheduled for April 22.
Asked if the American prosecution of Alzabarah would cause UNESCO to reconsider its relationship with Misk, Papagiannis said the agency's collaboration is with the foundation, not the individual. UNESCO, he said, would continue the program as long as the terms of the agreement are respected.
“Our agreement is with the Misk Foundation — since 2015, when they supported the UNESCO Youth Forum, along with several companies, including Perfect World [in] China, PRISA Group [in] Spain, CJ Corp [in] Korea, and other partners,” Papagiannis said. “Mr. Alzabarah happened to be the signatory of one subsequent agreement, as a representative of the Misk Foundation, but we have no working relationship with him.”
Although Alzabarah is accused of illicitly accessing information at Twitter, Papagiannis dismissed concerns that current trainees might access sensitive information that they would pass back to Saudi intelligence.
“They are not a security risk,” he said. “Trainees are supervised, and like all trainees, they have no access to sensitive materials.”
This post has been updated to state that UNESCO will determine whether to continue the program following an evaluation of the current round of trainees.