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Human Rights

Campaign Targets UNESCO’s Tie-up with ‘Saudi Spies’

A protest against the welcoming of Mohammad bin Salman at Downing Street, last year. Rights organisations have started an online petition against the involvement of bin Salman’s Misk Foundation with the United Nations Educational Scientific And Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Youth Forum being held in Paris next week. Courtesy: Alisdare Hickson/CC by 2.0

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 14 2019 (IPS) - The United Nations faces renewed criticism over its partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Misk Foundation amid revelations that the charity is headed by the mastermind of a recent Twitter spying operation.

An online petition against the tie-up has received some 6,000 signatures, with organisers saying the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO, should “have nothing to do” with Misk, the private charity of Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohamed bin Salman. 

The campaign comes days before Misk takes part in the Nov. 18-19 UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, and days after revelations that Misk official Bader al-Asaker led a Saudi effort to gather private details about dissidents via their Twitter accounts.

“Thousands of people are urging UNESCO to cut ties with Misk, a fake Saudi charity that’s really a front for spying run by the Saudi dictator as he tries to track and kill critics,” Sunjeev Bery, director of campaign group Freedom Forward, which organised the petition, told IPS.

“It’s time for the world to wake up and realise that you cannot dance with a brutal despot without becoming implicated in their public relations efforts. The Saudi dictatorship uses its international affiliations to hide the violence it deploys to silence opponents.”

Bery says Misk is used by the powerful crown prince as “propaganda” to divert attention away from Riyadh’s spying operations, a crackdown on critics and the “mass slaughter” during its military operations in neighbouring Yemen.

UNESCO has worked with Misk since 2015 in a deal worth $5 million to the Paris-based U.N. agency. Misk promotes young entrepreneurship at glitzy gatherings in New York, Paris and elsewhere, featuring such speakers as soccer legend Thierry Henry.

UNESCO spokesman Alexander Schischlik said the agency and Misk have co-hosted several events in recent years, and that Misk had helped select a candidate to take part in this month’s forum at UNESCO headquarters.

“It is our role and obligation to work with all member states within our mandate,” Schischlik told IPS. 

“We will continue to do so. Saudi Arabia has been a valuable partner in many issues, including heritage protection, and culture.”

Critics of the tie-up point to revelations this month that Misk’s secretary-general, al-Asaker, ran a Saudi effort to track down dissidents using Twitter, and claims last year linking him to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Last week, the United States Department of Justice charged three men of spying for Saudi by digging up private user data of suspected dissidents and passing it to Riyadh in exchange for cash and luxury wristwatches.

A 24-page FBI complaint accuses two former Twitter employees and an individual who previously worked for the Saudi royal family as being part of a spy ring that tapped private data from thousands of accounts.

The document does not name Asaker or the crown prince, but references to “Foreign Official-1” and “Royal Family Member-1” have been identified as Asaker and prince bin Salman, who is the kingdom’s de facto ruler and is better known as MbS. 

Asaker runs MbS’ private office and heads Misk, which promotes entrepreneurship in Saudi, where high unemployment rates and a demographic bulge of youngsters raise tough questions for an economy that seeks to wean itself off oil.

The complaint describes Asaker cultivating Twitter employees and paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars to discover the email addresses and other private details related to Twitter accounts that had criticised the kingdom.

It was not the first time that Asaker made headlines. Last year, Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak reported that the head of Saudi hit squad that killed dissident journalist Khashoggi phoned Asaker four times as the gruesome operation was carried out.

Transcripts of the calls were never published, and it remains unclear whether Asaker was involved. Saudi officials initially denied links to Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, but later described a “rogue operation” that did not involve MbS.

The CIA has concluded that the prince ordered the hit, according to reports. Saudi officials point to a trial in Saudi of alleged plotters, in which Asaker is not a defendant, but which has been widely criticised for lacking in transparency.

The U.N. has faced repeated blowback over its ties with Misk. In September, the U.N.’s youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, pulled out of an event she was co-hosting with Misk at the last minute amid controversy over Khashoggi’s murder.

 
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