Saudi Money with Strings Attached

King Abdulaziz courts controversy with Vienna centre for interreligious dialogue

Saudi Protest Women's Rights

Protestors stress Saudi women’s rights abuses                  Photo: David Reali

While a duo of lute and violin played a solemn tune accompanying an Arabic song, Austria’s foreign minister Michael Spindelegger leaned over to say something to the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Alfaisal. That was all it took. Suddenly, the music was lost in a cacophony of flashing cameras and clicking shutters.

Indeed, this was the perfect photo op to accompany suspicions of ulterior motives behind the Saudi king’s giant investment in Vienna.

On 13 Oct., Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia signed a treaty to house and co-fund the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. The response has been mixed. While most agree the need for dialogue is great, Austrian Muslims are worried about the possibility that the Saudi’s Wahhabi Islam will influence the way Islam is viewed worldwide.  This branch of orthodox Sunni advocates a return to the early Islam of the Koran and Sunna, rejecting later innovations.

The enthusiasm for an interfaith organisation has been growing among the Saudi leadership since the 9/11 attacks, where 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi. King Abdulaziz said he began seeking more open religious dialogue from that point on. In 2007 the Saudi king met with the Pope, agreeing that moral values must be promoted through interreligious dialogue.

Spain has played a key role. With a history of religious pluralism dating back to the Muslim Al-Andalus region in Iberia from the 7th to the 14th century, in recent years, the country has been at the centre of many UN interreligious dialogue initiatives.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry has sought to assuage fears by stressing that the new centre’s institutional status prevents it from being misused for political or business purposes: As an international organisation, with a 12-person- board of directors and an advisory forum of 100 members, including cultural institutions as well as faith-based members, its activities will be monitored on an on-going basis.

Austria “has lots of experience with international organisations,” said Gregor Schusterschitz of the Austrian Foreign Ministry. This legal status “makes it easier to hire international employees” than it would be for an NGO or a Verein (association). “Religions also have spiritual dimensions,” he said. “The framework should make room for the religions and the side interests.”

The “side interests” are what some of the opposition are worried about.

Amer Albayati, the press spokesman for the ILMÖ (Initiative for Liberal Muslims in Austria) is particularly fearful of the connotations the centre will have for the wider Islamic community: “This Wahhabi centre is against the integration of Muslims in general in Europe.”

He sees Saudi Arabia and Turkey as colonial powers reigning over European Muslims, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood:

“The Wahhabi sect is not even accepted in [most of] the Arab world,” he said. “It’s only accepted by Saudi Arabia, the Hamas and the Taliban.”

Albayati described the interfaith centre as “another back-door approach” to gaining a Wahhabi foothold in Muslim affairs in Europe. He is convinced that the Saudi influence in similar organisations in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe has been a money laundering venture, in part to whitewash funds destined for terrorist cells.

“Money doesn’t stink,” he said, reiterating Saudia Arabia’s disproportional influence in the Muslim world compared to the country’s population: Rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, he said, “The amount of influence is staggering.”

Muslims are not the only ones wary of the authenticity of the centre’s goals: The Catholic and Jewish communities in Vienna are also very cautious.

“We’re not naïve,” said Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He confirmed the plan to request that the Holy See have observer status over the developments at the dialogue centre. However, he also sees its merit: “There are problems, and these problems have to be solved.” The damaging lack of dialogue between religions is apparent to all involved.

A case in point, the date of the signing was set for Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, leaving almost no Jewish guests present.

The Jews present raised other issues of exclusion. Samuel Laster of the Jewish news website wanted to know if he could be driven by his female boss to pray in a synagogue in Saudi Arabia. No, the Saudi minister replied.

“There are no synagogues in Saudi Arabia because there are no Jews.” He then hastened to reassure the press that “the Jewish faith is represented equally in this organisation.” On the board of directors, however, Christians and Muslims are allocated a minimum of three members, while the quota for Jews is just one.

What will the centre mean for Vienna as a city? Many see it as just one more international organisation that will fill the hotels and keep the airport busy. The centre will be housed in the Gründerzeit Palais Sturany on Schottenring, a former library of the Catholic Church, reported by Der Standard (13 Oct.) to have been bought by King Abdulaziz for €13 million. The generosity displayed by the monarch, who plans to fund the organisation through 2014, has puzzled many supporters of interreligious dialogue, as they worry about belonging to a lobby that is paid for by a country where people are still legally beheaded and dismembered, and where women are denied freedom of speech or movement, including leaving the house unescorted or driving a car.

The Saudi Foreign Minister stressed the independence of the centre, saying, “There is a fund that makes the centre independent of any political issue.” Evidently the Saudis are not opposed to additional spending: “Any holes in financing, we will be happy to cover. The reason is that we really believe that the need for such a centre is great.”

See also: Media Monitor: Saudi-Funded Controversy

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