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Pro-Saudi think tank in Washington shuts down

Arabia Foundation will fold because of 'ongoing differences' between its donors, its founder says
Ali Shihabi said the think tank's operations had been affected by "ongoing differences among our donors" (Screengrab)
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Washington

The Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in Washington, is shutting down amid growing criticism of Saudi Arabia's influence on US policies after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The think tank's founder, Ali Shihabi, confirmed the closure on Tuesday, citing "ongoing differences" between donors.

"This is due to ongoing differences among our donors that made continued operations difficult," Shihabi tweeted.

He did not provide additional information about the identity of the organisation's funders or the nature of the disputes.

Shihabi, who was widely criticised for leaping to Riyadh's defence after Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul last October, reaffirmed his support for the kingdom's rulers in a series of tweets announcing the foundation's shutdown.

He said the closure does not change his backing of the "change and reform" programme underway in Saudi Arabia, which has been spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"Critics have made incomplete and imbalanced judgements about his tenure focusing on the Khashoggi tragedy and arrests of dissidents but have chosen to ignore the seismic changes that he has pushed through in social, religious, cultural and economic affairs," Shihabi wrote.

Shihabi had gained a reputation for defending "the indefensible" when he dismissed the killing of Khashoggi as a "stupid, botched operation".

He also lauded Donald Trump's response to the crisis, as the US president sought to protect his Saudi allies from the outcry in Washington.

The death of Khashoggi, a former Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident, has led to added scrutiny of pro-Saudi think tanks and lobbyists in the US capital.

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But as major institutions in Washington tried to disassociate themselves from Riyadh - and some of Trump's closest allies questioned the US president's defence of the crown prince - Shihabi remained steadfast in his support for the kingdom.

Last month, he praised Trump for referring to bin Salman as a "friend" and for saying the young ruler has been key in "opening up Saudi Arabia".

"Trump correctly highlights two key facts. MBS's fight against Wahhabi extremism and his opening up of the country to female participation in a way inconceivable only a few years ago," Shihabi wrote in a later post, using a nickname for the crown prince. 

"He understands that it's idiotic to focus on one issue only namely the Khashoggi tragedy."  

Ironically, on Tuesday, Walid al-Hathloul, the brother of detained Saudi women's rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul, welcomed the demise of Shihabi's Arabia Foundation. 

"This is a [sic] good news for the health of political debates in Washington," he wrote.

MBS lifted a ban on women's driving and tried to ease some of the ultraconservative norms in Saudi Arabia.

However, his government has embarked on a brutal crackdown on dissent and arrested dozens of women's rights advocates, including Hathloul, who has been tortured and sexually harrassed in jail.

US lawmakers have repeatedly denounced human rights violations in the kingdom, including the detention of Hathloul and other activists.

Despite the growing anger, the Arabia Foundation continued to host prominent analysts and organise events in Washington.

Eighteen days after Khashoggi was killed and dismembered, Shihabi stressed that "MBS is going nowhere" in a Twitter thread in which he argued that the crown prince is essential for the stability of the kingdom.

"Keep cashing those checks, Ali," Karen Attiah, a Washington Post editor who worked with Khashoggi, responded on Twitter.

"I cannot for the life of me understand how you sleep at night."