A Saudi Interfaith Cultural Center Is Leaving Vienna — But For All the Wrong Reasons

The King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue is relocating to Lisbon. Its detractors say good riddance; its defenders say Austria’s anti-Muslim far right pushed it out

A Saudi Interfaith Cultural Center Is Leaving Vienna — But For All the Wrong Reasons
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal shakes hand with Spain´s Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez (R) next to Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger (C) after signing an agreement for the establishment of the “King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue” on October 13, 2011 in Vienna / Dieter Nagl / AFP via Getty Images

On the morning of March 5, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) quietly announced its intention to close its Vienna headquarters. In a polite but perfunctory three-paragraph statement, Secretary-General Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaammar outlined how all parties to the center had unanimously agreed that its future lay outside the Austrian capital, its home since 2012. “I am thankful to the Republic of Austria for hosting the center,” bin Muaammar said before going on to thank all those who had supported its work and mission.

The statement’s civility belied the tumultuous, stop-start history of KAICIID in Vienna. When it opened in November 2012 in the presence of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, it was a prestige project of the Saudi government. It had the support of then-Austrian President Heinz Fischer and was eagerly welcomed by Austria’s coalition government made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). KAICIID was received in grandiose terms, with Ban proclaiming that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian civil war and the Islamist insurgence in Mali demonstrated why its work breaking down religious and cultural barriers was of the utmost importance.

Less than 10 years later, the center was sneaking out of Austria via the back door. KAICIID was the victim of a shifting political climate in Austria and an unusual constellation of parties and pressure groups — including the far right — united solely by their opposition to the so-called Abdullah-Zentrum. But KAICIID was itself undermined, for it was the Saudi government’s own human rights abuses — and in particular, the case of Raif bin Muhammad Badawi — that provided the basis for Austria’s turn against the center.

That move, in turn, now threatens to undermine Vienna’s status as a center for international diplomacy and de facto destination for international organizations. In the decades following World War II, successive governments were able to attract major agencies of the U.N., the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and OPEC to the city on the basis of Austria’s official neutrality. The fear is that the KAICIID debacle, which made that neutrality subservient to domestic political considerations, will make Vienna a less attractive place to do business in the future.

Out of a conversation in 2007 between the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and then-Pope Benedict XVI came the idea of a new interfaith initiative, one that would eventually become KAICIID. For the Saudis, the idea of an international center with programming designed to facilitate interreligious and intercultural dialogue and train a new generation of faith leaders was born in part of a desire to accelerate certain changes within Saudi Arabia itself, David Rosen, who sits on KAICIID’s board of directors, told New Lines. The Saudis desired a “more open, more tolerant, more pluralistic” society, Rosen said.

KAICIID also helped fulfill certain Saudi foreign policy objectives. A center for interfaith cooperation would help fix the Saudis’ image problem in the West, which worsened after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and provide a useful forum for engaging in dialogue with other nations and religions free of the constraints of formal diplomacy. The Saudis wanted to be understood as a victim and not a perpetuator of Islamic extremism around the world. They also wanted Islam itself to be better understood via interreligious dialogue and for Saudi Arabia to be seen as the leader of the Muslim world.

In 2011, Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to establish KAICIID (the Vatican was a “founding observer”), and the Austrians were “very energetic about their desire that the center be in Vienna,” Rosen said. Any opposition was principally confined to smaller extra-parliamentary organizations. Liberal Muslims in Austria (Initiative Liberaler Muslime Österreich) held a vigil and symbolic hunger strike outside KAICIID during its November 2012 opening day festivities in protest against what it termed the center of a “dubious Wahhabi sect.” Kurt Krickler, then secretary-general of the Homosexual Initiative Vienna (HOSI Wien), argued that by hosting KAICIID, the Austrian government was guilty of helping make the “homophobic worldview” of the Saudi government “socially acceptable.” KAICIID was also attacked by secularist groups like Religion Is a Private Matter (Initiative Religion Ist Privatsache), which believed Austria should not financially support what amounted to a private religious initiative.

Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, had what he termed “hesitancies” about joining KAICIID’s board. But “if the heads of the Christian world thought this was an initiative worthwhile going along with, who am I — holier than the pope — to say, ‘No, I’m better than them and will not participate.’ It’s very nice to be lily-white and virginal and say I’m not going to get my hands dirty in any way whatsoever, but then you don’t help things, you don’t make the world a better place. There’s a tactical risk involved, but if Saudi Arabia is going to reach out its hand, saying it wants to change constructively and wants to be involved in good things, then I think it becomes a moral imperative to respond to that and to turn one’s back and say you’re not good enough would be very unproductive,” Rosen said.

The turn against KAICIID in Austria began in late 2014 and early 2015, precipitated by two events. In October 2014, the Green MP Gabriela Moser raised questions in Parliament about the nature of the real estate deal that sold the Palais Sturany — a prime piece of real estate on Vienna’s Ringstrasse and KAICIID’s future base — to the Saudis. The Federal Real Estate Company (Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft or BIG), which had owned the building, had sold it to King Abdullah in 2011 for $15.5 million even though, according to contemporaneous reports, the BIG had only expected to raise $9.85 million. The BIG rejected claims of opaqueness, but that same month, the Austrian government committed to reviewing its involvement with KAICIID — the first but not the last time they would dither and vacillate on this issue.

The second came in January 2015, when 50 lashes were administered against the Saudi dissident and activist Raif bin Muhammad Badawi. Badawi had been arrested by Saudi authorities in 2012 and first sentenced in 2013 for the crime of “insulting Islam.” The punishment was increased in May 2014 to 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ imprisonment. The Greens, again, were particularly engaged in Badawi’s fate, establishing a vigil outside KAICIID headquarters in his name. Over the coming years, his imprisonment and punishment would become a leitmotif associated with the Greens’ particular opposition to KAICIID.

Badawi’s barbaric punishment was enough for chancellor Werner Faymann (SPÖ) to order that a report examining the future of KAICIID be sped up. Sebastian Kurz, who was foreign minister at the time, had commissioned the report in summer 2014; Faymann was anxious to see it finalized. Josef Ostermayer, a minister in the federal chancellery, said he supported closing KAICIID “as quickly as possible.” He was far from the only senior voice in the SPÖ to express doubts about the usefulness of having KAICIID in Vienna, opening up a rift within the party between continued supporters of the center like Fischer and its newfound opponents.

In the end, neither this increased pressure on KAICIID in 2014 and 2015 nor the death of King Abdullah in January 2015 led to Austria withdrawing from the project. In February 2015, Kurz clarified his support for KAICIID, arguing that closing it would do nothing for human rights in Saudi Arabia. Instead of closing, the center underwent a restructuring, refocusing its activities on the connection between religious freedom and human rights as well as a greater openness when it came to interreligious and intercultural dialogue. Rosen branded the restructuring “absolute rubbish”: “The things [the Austrian government] were asking for were things that KAICIID itself wanted to do and was asking Austria to do. They were failing in their whole responsibility.”

That superficial reorganization was enough to content Austria’s governing authorities for another three years. In May 2017, in the runup to the parliamentary elections of that year, the Greens brought forward a measure in the parliamentary subcommittee on human rights to terminate KAICIID’s contract housing them in Vienna, but it went nowhere prior to Parliament’s preelection dissolution. Only in October 2018, when the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul in what the CIA concluded was a killing ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, did attention turn back to KAICIID anew.

By that time, there had been a power shift in Austria. The old left-right grand coalition had fallen, and in its place following the general election of October 2017 stood a right-wing government led by Kurz as chancellor. His partner was the far-right Freedom Party and it had nominated Karin Kneissl — who fancied herself a Middle East expert — to be foreign minister. The FPÖ began calling for the center’s closure following Badawi’s lashing in January 2015, with the Viennese branch of the party in particular using KAICIID as a stick with which to beat the SPÖ-Green city government as part of an overall campaign against the city’s creeping “Islamization.”

Not long after Khashoggi’s death, Kneissl publicly backed a reexamination of the legal basis for KAICIID’s residence in Vienna and supported the opposition’s calls for renewed discussion about the center, with the caveat that she did not condone any possible closure. Kneissl entered into talks with KAICIID, and out of these discussions came a second quasi-restructuring of the institution and another commitment to “strengthen its work with regard to religious freedom, cooperation with secular institutions and intra-Muslim dialogue” and “reinforce” the center’s “independence and objectivity” — in other words, a rehash of the previous commitments KAICIID had made in April 2015.

Unlike in 2015, however, the political forces bearing down on KAICIID did not abate; indeed, SPÖ MP Muna Duzdar called for the pressure on the institution to be ramped up further. The evermore unstable political conditions in Austria created the basis for KAICIID’s final downfall. In June 2019, the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition collapsed following a vote of no confidence — the first in the history of postwar Austria. A month prior, then-Vice Chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache had been caught on tape in Ibiza offering political concessions to someone whom he believed to be the relative of a Russian oligarch in exchange for her financial support.

That coalition was replaced by a caretaker government appointed by the president, one due to remain in place until new elections could be held in September 2019. Shorn of coalition discipline and the typical divide between government and opposition, new cross-party alliances started to form, and Parliament began to pass all manner of legislation. In these turbulent, freewheeling conditions, in June 2019 Parliament passed an application to close KAICIID, one approved by all parties save for the ÖVP. The caretaker government’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, declared that he would bring that application into effect. Though it continued to find its defenders, including Fischer and the Austrian Catholic Church, KAICIID’s days were numbered.

In January 2020, a new coalition government was sworn in, bringing the KAICIID-critical Greens into power for the first time. Their agreement with Kurz and the ÖVP committed the government to either reforming KAICIID or ejecting it from Vienna. The writing was on the wall. The Austrian press first reported in June 2020 on KAICIID’s intention to leave Vienna, with rumors suggesting the Saudis were looking for a soft landing for the institution in Geneva. The definitive announcement came via a press release in March 2021; in June, Die Presse, a leading daily newspaper in Austria, reported that KAICIID was seeking to relocate to Lisbon, though the new location of KAICIID’s headquarters has yet to be formally unveiled as negotiations continue.

For its opponents, who viewed KAICIID as an institution that whitewashed the human rights abuses of a murderous, authoritarian and religiously extreme regime, the case was clear. It was not for Saudi Arabia, a Wahhabi state, to appoint itself via KAICIID representative for all the world’s Muslims responsible for interreligious dialogue, and it was not for Austria to give succor to a religious institution founded by a government that had given the lash to an independent blogger and condemned a journalist in exile to death.

That case was best put by the Austro-Israeli novelist Doron Rabinovici, who responded to the idea that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness by warning that “not every will-o’-the-wisp, every ghost-light, is in fact a candle. [KAICIID], to borrow from the language of theologians, is an ignis fatuus that does nothing to dispel the darkness; rather, it transfigures it.” Interreligious dialogue, Rabinovici argued, was a substitute for open confrontation with the “horrors” taking place in Saudi Arabia or other key theological, political and social questions, “drowning out talk of tyranny and crimes.” KAICIID, he said, was a “farce” whose time had come.

KAICIID’s supporters in Austria would argue, however, that criticism like this often failed to distinguish between Saudi Arabia and the center it backed. “It is unclear how many of the political leaders who voted to shut down [KAICIID] actually visited its office, met its staff, or experienced its work first-hand,” wrote the educator and activist Heather Wokusch in Metropole, an English-language magazine in Vienna, arguing that those who voted to close the center in 2019 were guilty of “exploit[ing] simmering anti-Arab sentiment for political gain” while ignoring KAICIID’s good deeds and its multinational, gender-balanced makeup.

“And that’s the amazing thing: that most critics, especially in Austria, haven’t even bothered to go to the website to see what it does,” Rosen said. In spite of his aforementioned hesitance about becoming involved with KAICIID, he believes the project has been worthwhile. First, because of its work in Vienna in the areas of conflict resolution and training a future generation of communal religious leaders in interfaith dialogue. And second, because of the changes Rosen has seen in Saudi Arabia in terms of its approach to education (including women’s education), to Islam, to Christianity and to antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

For now, KAICIID remains in Vienna, the likely move to Lisbon delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. A spokesperson for the Austrian foreign ministry told New Lines that “talks are underway” concerning that move. In spite of its imminent withdrawal from the country, Austria wishes to remain a member of the founding Council of Parties: “Austria wants to have its cake and eat it and leave some over,” Rosen said. In the long run, he believes this scandal will hurt Austria more than it will KAICIID: “I think it places Austria in a very embarrassing position, and I think there will be organizations who, in the future, will wonder to what degree you can rely on Austria’s word.”

Philippe Narval, ex-secretary-general of the European Forum Alpbach, believes KAICIID’s departure from Vienna is a manifestation of what he terms Austria’s departure from the world, a process he believes began in 2013 when the country withdrew its forces from the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights. Austrian foreign policy, he has argued, has been made the servant of domestic political considerations. Austria “will only find an audience internationally if it is seen as a reliable partner and neutral mediator.” Further actions like KAICIID’s leave-taking will confine Austria “to the geopolitical minor leagues. But then, perhaps that is what we want?”

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