Rights groups were up in arms on Tuesday at the presence of a youth “charity” at a Unesco event in Paris with close ties to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and run by a figure linked to a dissident espionage case in America.
Some 6,500 people have signed an online petition calling for the UN body based in the French capital to “end its partnership” with the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (MiSK), the Saudi crown prince’s personal charity.
The non-profit philanthropic foundation’s stated aim is to “discover, develop and empower young people in Saudi Arabia and beyond to become active participants in the future economy.”
A MiSK representative took part in a panel discussion at a two-day Unesco “youth forum”.
The CIA has concluded that Prince Salman likely ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year while a UN rapporteur found in June that there is “credible evidence” linking him to the murder.
MiSK is run by Bader Al Asaker, who the Washington Post this month cited as the Saudi official suspected of working with two former Twitter employees the US justice apartment has accused of spying on dissidents for Saudi Arabia.
According to Yeni Safak, the Turkish daily newspaper, Maher al-Mutreb, the suspected head of the commando that is accused of executing Mr Khashoggi, allegedly made four phone calls to Mr Asaker on the day of his murder.
In September, the New York Public Library cancelled a workshop for 300 people after criticism from human rights groups of the event’s Saudi sponsor, arguing it would help the prince improve his reputation abroad.
UN youth envoy Jayathma Wickramanayak also withdrew from the event organised on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said: “Unesco shouldn’t let the Saudi crown prince whitewash his reputation through contributions from his charitable foundation.”
“It’s about time that all UN bodies abandoned MiSK for good,” said Sunjeev Very of Freedom Forward, which launched the online petition.
MiSK signed a $5 million partnership with Unesco in 2016.
Unesco said: “In the absence of a conviction by a national or international court, we don’t consider at this stage we are in possession of evidence permitting us to break this agreement.”
But Agnès Callamard, the UN expert and lawyer who investigated the Khashoggi murder, said she was “alarmed at the capacity of the international community to move on to something else” and criticised “all attempts by Saudi Arabia to sell its ‘soft power’”.