MARRAKESH, Morocco -- As former president Bill Clinton opened the Clinton Global Initiative conference here Wednesday morning, one of the meeting's most prominent attendees lashed out against the U.S. news media for scrutinizing the foreign fundraising practices of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
Mo Ibrahim, a billionaire Sudanese-British telecommunications entrepreneur and philanthropist, said that during a visit to the United States 10 days ago, "I was shocked to see these attacks on the foundation."
Speaking on stage in a panel discussion moderated by Clinton, Ibrahim said, "Everybody's asking, 'This foundation is getting money from Saudi Arabia.'...What is wrong if Saudi Arabia gives money for a farm in Africa? What's the big deal?"
The audience of a few hundred foreign government, business and non-profit leaders applauded. Clinton, leaning back in his chair and resting his head in his left hand, said nothing at first. But then Ibrahim directed his comments at the former president.
"I don't see anybody from the foundation standing up and really having a go at that," Ibrahim said. He added, "You should have stood up and really took issue -- what is this money for? What have you done with it?"
Bill Clinton quipped, "I just work here. I don't know."
"Look," Clinton continued, "there's one set of rules for politics in America and another set for real life, and you've just got to learn to deal with it."
Ibrahim noticed his outrage that scrutiny on the foundation's fundraising was coming from major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. "These are not tabloids," he said. "These are respectable newspapers."
Later Wednesday, in a 20-minute gaggle with reporters here, Ibrahim attributed the media attention on the Clinton Foundation to the "polarized" state of U.S. politics and suggested it was part of a witch hunt to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy.
"If Saudi money goes to help poor farmers in Tanzania, isn’t that a wonderful thing?" Ibrahim asked reporters. "It just begs the question, was that fair scrutiny or is that a political assassination process?”
Ibrahim -- who is often a featured speaker at Clinton Global Initiative events and whose daughter, Hadeel Ibrahim sits on the Clinton Foundation's board of directors -- said he does not believe the foundation should have stopped accepting donations from foreign governments, excluding six Western nations.
“Personally I disagree with that," Ibrahim said, referencing the foundation's recent change in policy. "As long as everything is clear – we know where the money’s coming from, where it’s going from – as long as no favors are given to people who are making donations. Actually, [the Clintons] were not in the past in a position to make anybody take favors. Of course, if Madame Hillary becomes president, it would be different.”
Ibrahim added, "If they took this money and put it in their pocket and spent it in Chelsea’s wedding, then you’d have a reason to complain.”
Ibrahim said he thinks Hillary Clinton would make "a wonderful president," and that it was time for the United States to have a woman president. "You guys pretend to lead the charge, women's liberation, [but] it's time to have a woman move forward a little bit. You are behind."
But he acknowledged the challenge, should Hillary Clinton be elected, of separating the work of the Clinton Foundation from her administration.
"How she separates herself from the foundation, I don't know," Ibrahim said. "There may be conflicts and we don't want her presidency to be -- it becomes a distraction."