Last September, Jamal Khashoggi sent me an email. He was filing his first piece for The Washington Post. “I’m under so much pressure from family members and friends to stay silent, but this isn’t right, we have enough Arab failing states, I don’t want my country to (be) one too,” he told me. He was talking about Saudi Arabia.
I never would have imagined that after only a year of us working together, Jamal would be dead, brutally killed and likely dismembered for speaking out against the dark forces that were taking over his beloved country. A month later, his depraved killers have deprived his family and friends of the chance to properly bury his remains.
For the good of Saudi Arabia and regional stability, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reign of abuses and impunity must end. Between kidnapping Lebanon’s prime minister, destroying diplomatic relations with Canada, turning Yemen into an oozing humanitarian disaster and being a prime suspect in the plot to lure, capture, kill and dismember a Post columnist, it should now be tragically obvious to see why Jamal feared that Saudi Arabia would fail under MBS’s impulsive iron fist.
MBS’s personal charity organization, the MiSK Foundation, is scheduled to hold its global forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday and Thursday. According to the website, the foundation’s goal is “creating opportunities for the development of society and unlocking people’s potential.” Last year, CNN, Twitter, CNBC, Bloomberg, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation participated in the forum, just to name a few. Even the United Nations is in bed with MiSK: A few days before Khashoggi’s murder, the MiSK Foundation pledged to financially support the United Nations’s initiatives on global youth development.
In the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, it was encouraging to see some Western organizations take a stand and quickly pull out of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative in October. But there has been much less attention on the participants and sponsors of the MiSK Foundation and its upcoming global event. Still, the organizers must be feeling the heat — only a few days before the event, they have largely kept the program and participants secret. There is nothing to be found on the MiSK forum’s website about confirmed speakers or sponsors.
(Another reason for organizations to be wary of associating with MiSK: According to some reports from Turkish media, the hit team that murdered Khashoggi called Bader al-Asaker, the secretary-general of the MiSK Foundation and head of MBS’s personal office, four times during the Oct. 2 killing.)
Last week, the Gates Foundation announced it was suspending its support of the foundation. In a statement reported by the Seattle Times, the foundation said “Jamal Khashoggi’s abduction and murder are extremely troubling,” and “we are observing current events with concern, and we do not plan to fund any subsequent rounds of the Misk Grand Challenges program.” (One could question why scores of civilian deaths in Yemen failed to deter the Gates Foundation from working with Saudi Arabia, especially considering that the Gates Foundation supports humanitarian programming in Yemen. But a late stand is better than none at all.)
Bill Gates isn’t the only business leader who has gotten cold feet with MBS after Khashoggi’s cruel fate: Virgin Group founder Richard Branson suspended $1 billion in Saudi investments in his space companies in mid-October. On the political side, U.S. officials are nervous that MBS may imperil plans for an”Arab NATO.” A source told Reuters that having MBS come to the United States to discuss it is “not palatable.”
But many organizations are reluctant to give up their ties to the Saudi regime. According to the Seattle Times report, Google, Harvard, LinkedIn and Twitter have not commented on whether they will continue to partner with the MiSK Foundation. As the world saw during MBS’s whirlwind tour of the United States this year, the crown prince made photo op stops at Harvard and mingled with execs at Google. He met Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com, who also owns The Washington Post. He has also shaken hands with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Are these organizations, which have built their public images as institutions that promote free speech and the exchange of ideas, really willing to stain their reputations by shaking hands with a man who leads a regime that weaponizes social media against its own people, hunts down thoughtful critics like prey and thinks nothing of turning Saudi consulates into human slaughterhouses?
U.S. organizations should stop whitewashing MBS’s image and withdraw from the MiSK Foundation. Institutions have a clear choice when it comes to Mohammed Bin Salman — side with brutal repression or stand against it. It is time for them to make the right choice and treat MBS as a persona non grata and publicly shun him.