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How we can expose the Saudi dictatorship and blunt its public relations campaigns

In recent weeks, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has faced a new round of negative publicity over its partnership with MiSK, the private foundation of Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). In the latest headlines, UNESCO sought to distance itself from alleged Saudi spy Ali Alzabarah, a MiSK official who faces trial in absentia in the United States for allegedly spying for Saudi officials while employed by Twitter.

The recent news offers insights into MbS’s ongoing strategies to build power. Through MiSK and other efforts, MbS is attempting to build an aura of legitimacy in the public arena while continuing his tactics of repression at home and abroad. Sometimes, MbS is even employing the same people to do both.

UNESCO’s relationship with MiSK goes back to at least 2016, when the U.N. agency signed a partnership agreement with MiSK Secretary General Bader Al Asaker, who would later make headlines when Turkish media alleged that he was directly linked to the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. More recent reports regarding Saudi espionage inside Twitter also pointed to Al Asaker, this time as a coordinator of the espionage effort. It’s no surprise then that alleged spy Alzabarah would end up working for Al Asaker as a CEO of a MiSK initiative that placed trainees with UNESCO.

UNESCO said it will not renew Alzabarah’s contract even while maintaining its relationship with the MiSK foundation that employs him. This is a distinction without a difference. It isn’t just Alzabarah who is the problem. The entire organization is just an extension of MbS’s political agenda.

That’s why my organization, Freedom Forward, and allies have campaigned to end the UNESCO-MiSK partnership. A U.N. agency that “seeks to build peace through international cooperation” should not be partnered with a dictator who builds power by crushing dissent. Thousands of people around the world have endorsed a demand that UNESCO end its relationship with MbS and his MiSK foundation.

Through campaigns like these, critics of Western partnerships with dictators can teach political and business elites that the old days of “business as usual” now come with significant reputational risks. The campaign targeting UNESCO is a case in point, having generated global media coverage that has put the U.N. agency on the defensive.

Reporter James Reinl of The New Arab was the first to cover the rising controversy. From there, reporters at The Telegraph (UK), Le Monde, Radio France Internationale, Le Figaro; and ABC, Spain’s third largest newspaper, also dug in.

Along the way, leading human rights voices have also been highly critical of the UNESCO-MiSK relationship. Top U.N. human rights official Agnes Callamard publicly criticized UNESCO for maintaining the partnership. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth slammed UNESCO for taking Saudi money and remaining silent on Khashoggi’s murder.

UNESCO is now in a bit of a bind, borne of a combination of public criticism, its own financial interests, and the Saudi monarchy’s new position on UNESCO’s executive board. As has been revealed time and again, the Saudi strategy of brutal repression combined with PR campaigns to build global legitimacy leave both the dictatorship and its enablers vulnerable to a global public backlash. The more assertive Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is in its efforts to secure the spotlight, the greater the opportunities to criticize both the dictatorship and the third-party institutions that enable it.

Indeed, the latest UNESCO-MiSK controversy is itself an outgrowth of a successful 2019 campaign to stop a MiSK propaganda event in New York City. The Saudi monarchy had hoped to host a so-called global youth summit that would have been timed to occur during a U.N. General Assembly meeting in late September. Of course, the same monarchy was simultaneously prosecuting a brutal war with horrific consequences for Yemeni children.

Leveraging the Saudi monarchy’s hubris, Freedom Forward and a coalition of allies organized protests and drove headlines that forced the New York Public Library, key speakers, and a U.N. youth envoy to drop out of the Saudi event. Journalists posed tough questions to the office of the U.N. Secretary General, and the Saudi monarchy was ultimately left with no choice but to move their event to a private location. Even then, they faced more protests and negative publicity.

All of this points to a critical challenge for Saudi Arabia’s dictatorship and an important lesson for committed human rights advocates. The greater the criticism faced by a wealthy dictator, the greater the likelihood that the dictator will seek new public relations strategies to rebuild their legitimacy. But in doing so, the offending government makes itself even more publicly vulnerable to the very delegitimization that it fears.

For those who seek to extract the U.S. from problematic alliances that drive the possibility of war and enable human rights abuses, civil society campaigns like the above are one important strategy for delegitimizing relationships with bad actors. If we want the U.S. to say goodbye to the Saudi monarchy, we should invest in campaigns that enable the global public to lead the way.

Moving forward, it is clear that the campaign model that is driving controversy around MiSK and UNESCO is worth expanding. As the Saudi monarchy seeks to build its presence — whether through so-called charity, commerce, or other efforts — it should face a blunt public pushback. To build a break between the Saudi monarchy and its Western enablers, target the relationships that help keep these alliances in place.

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