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Washington Think Tanks Still Divided On Whether To Return Saudi Donations Over Journalist's Disappearance

The Middle East Institute, a prominent Washington think tank, said it would no longer seek donations from Saudi Arabia, but the Center for Strategic and International Studies said it was undecided.

Last updated on October 17, 2018, at 11:13 a.m. ET

Posted on October 15, 2018, at 4:50 p.m. ET

Osman Orsal / Reuters

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of Washington’s most prominent think tanks on international affairs, still has not decided whether to return funding from Saudi Arabia in the wake of the disappearance and likely murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But another influential research center, the Middle East Institute, said it would stop taking Saudi donations "pending the outcome of the investigation" into Khashoggi's disappearance.

CSIS's hesitance to reject a Saudi grant and the Middle East Institute's decision to stop receiving Saudi donations are further signs of the split roiling Washington, as officials here search for ways to respond to Khashoggi’s probable death.

After first threatening “severe punishment” if reports are confirmed that Khashoggi, who wrote a column for the Washington Post, was killed and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, President Donald Trump on Monday suggested that the journalist may have run afoul of "rogue" actors inside the Saudi diplomatic facility — a suggestion that drew immediate rebuke from Democratic lawmakers.

Dear @realDonaldTrump: You may want to get a briefing from the @StateDept. Rogue killers don't wander around inside an embassy. https://t.co/1Mv5FOMAAp

Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh Monday for meetings with Saudi government officials.

“It’s a new grant and it’s all still being processed,” said CSIS spokesperson H. Andrew Schwartz. He said CSIS is following the Khashoggi story closely and hasn’t made any decisions. Aramco, the Saudi oil company, is listed as a corporate donor on the think tank’s website.

The Middle East Institute provided another example of the conflict, issuing a statement on Monday that called "on the authorities of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States to act swiftly to bring out the truth about what happened to Mr. Kashoggi," but made no mention of Saudi money financing the institute's activities.

But in response to questions from BuzzFeed News about the status of Saudi funding, the institute said in an email, "The Board of Governors has decided to decline any funding from the Saudi government and to keep the matter under active review pending the outcome of the investigation into the case of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi."

Saudi money is a mainstay of activities at many Washington think tanks, whose researchers and associates provide a wide range of information to news reporters, members of Congress, and others, often without much in the way of public discussion about what influence the donations from foreign entities might have on the research.

Some centers said they would not be affected by the Khashoggi case.

“We do receive funding from companies and private donors – some of whom hold Saudi nationality,” a spokesperson for the Arabia Foundation, which is led by Saudi national Ali Shihabi, said in an email, adding, “We do not plan any changes to our funding.”

The Brookings Institution, on the other hand, which found itself in hot water over taking Qatari money in 2014, terminated its sole research grant with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Friday, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

“The funding, which was made in FY2018 by the Decision Support Center in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was to provide an analysis and evaluation of the Saudi think tank sector. This funding was the only known time the Brookings Institution accepted financial support from the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the spokesperson, who asked to be quoted on background, said in an email.

“The initial phase of this project was drawing to its projected close. Given current events, particularly the disappearance and suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and given our high standards, we felt we would be unable to conduct further research with this funding.” The spokesperson added that they are no longer accepting funding from Aramco, effective last week.

A source familiar with the matter said the decision to terminate the project came in the middle of last week, but that the announcement was delayed to complete notifications and administrative arrangements. The source said the grant was in the mid–six figures and that all funds are being returned to the funder.

Khashoggi had been a US permanent resident for a decade. On Monday, CNN reported that Saudi officials were preparing to announce that his death was the result of torture and interrogation gone wrong.

The role of Saudi money specifically and, more generally, money from other Gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, has been a fraught topic since news broke of Khashoggi’s disappearance and likely death. Some researchers said it's difficult to separate Saudi money from that provided by Saudi allies.

“It's hard to disaggregate Saudi and Emirati funding," said Doug Ollivant, a senior fellow focused on the Middle East at New America, a nonpartisan think tank. "It's not clear to me if that's just because their goals are so similar or because they really are coordinating.”

Indeed, the United Arab Emirates gave $20 million to the Middle East Institute between 2016 and 2017, and UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba has been a major proponent of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Atlantic Council wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News that it has not taken money from the Saudi government, individuals, or companies in the past five years, but lists the United Arab Emirates as having donated over one million in the 2017 fiscal year.

The role of donors’ money in influencing what the research centers produce has been a subject of debate for years. Ollivant, however, said the donations are less about changing people's research conclusions than about giving "prestige to people whose own belief and world views more or less mirror that of Saudis and Emiratis.”

He said the money also influences which issues the research centers avoid because it would be a headache to deal with their funders or because the centers hope to get Saudi money one day — in which case, Ollivant said, the centers are “more Catholic than the Pope” in adhering to the Saudi line.

But Ollivant was skeptical as to whether the disappearance and death of a journalist — and, for that matter, the deaths of civilians in Yemen by Saudi forces — would be enough to get think tanks to change course on Saudi and Emirati cash, noting that, to date, people’s reputations haven’t been ruined for taking it.

“Things can always get worse,” he said. “But you do have to wonder — if that's not enough to trip someone's moral conscience, what is?”

Trump himself has given rise to similar conclusions about what actions the US might take to retaliate if it turns out that Saudi officials played a role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. He told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in an interview aired Sunday that he would not cancel a $110 billion weapons deal that Saudi Arabia had agreed to last year when the president visited Riyadh.

“We would be punishing ourselves” by canceling the order, Trump said, adding that it is “a tremendous order for our companies.”


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