Pro-Saudi Arabia think tank abruptly closes in Washington

Pro-Saudi Arabia think tank abruptly closes in Washington
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The Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi Arabia think tank in Washington, shut down abruptly this week.

Founder Ali Shihabi announced the closure over Twitter on Tuesday, saying the move was prompted by “ongoing differences among our donors that made continued operations difficult.”

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“This in no way changes any of my opinions particularly my support for the program of change and reform that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is spearheading,” he added.

“After months of having to face these issues the Board concluded, correctly, that the best course was to close down. Nothing more exciting than that I’m afraid," Shihabi tweeted two days later.

He also cited “ongoing delays in donor funding.”

The foundation's website does not name any donors or members of the board of directors, and Shihabi declined to provide their names to The Hill.

"Donors want to retain their anonymity and not have to deal with media, and as a 501 (c)(4) donors do not need to be publicly disclosed," Shihabi told The Hill on Thursday.

Fifteen people had been employed at the foundation, which periodically hosted panel discussions and other events.

Shihabi, who previously worked in banking and finance in Riyadh, launched the foundation in 2017, according to its website.

The foundation's closure came amid rising tensions between Congress and the White House over the Trump administration's close ties to Saudi Arabia, particularly the crown prince. President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani says he is unaware of reported federal investigation Louisiana's Democratic governor forced into runoff Lawmakers focus their ire on NBA, not China MORE recently vetoed Congress's attempt to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Senate later attempted but failed to override the veto.

In Tuesday's announcement, Shihabi defended the crown prince and lashed out at critics who he said have focused too much on the death of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.

The crown prince has been accused of playing a key role in ordering Khashoggi's killing.

“Look at what Ali was doing and the stage on which he was doing it — it’s a high profile, high-risk act in Washington,” Aaron Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, told The Hill.

“Ali was the leading advocate for MBS as a transformative reform minded leader,” Miller added, referring to the crown prince by his initials.

Texas A&M professor Gregory Gause, a member of the foundation's advisory board, told The Hill that he thought Shihabi “was filling a niche that needed to be filled in the Washington debate."

"I think that he had a tough job after the Jamal Khashoggi killing and was walking that line of being an effective representative of the Saudi point of view in D.C.,” Gause said, adding that the foundation had its roots in Riyadh's business community.

“What Ali told me was that there were a number of business people back in Riyadh that were supportive of the notion that they needed a more public voice back in Washington,” he said. “There was a need for someone like Ali to represent the kingdom’s viewpoint. I think it’s a shame that you’re not going to hear that voice. But, really it is difficult to get the leeway you need to do the job of effectively representing the kingdom’s interests back in the U.S.”

In addition to Gause, the other advisory board members were former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli, Princeton professor Bernard Haykel, global head of commodities research at Citigroup Edward Morse and former Central Intelligence Agency manager Norman Roule.

Advisory board members were called on to participate in events, but they never met in person, according to Gause.

“I never sat down with other members of the advisory board as a group," he said.

Shihabi on Thursday tweeted about “incorrect” speculation about the closure, without citing any specific comments, saying “all organizations have internal politics that develop over time.”