In December 2008, as Hillary Clinton prepared for the hearings that would confirm her as the next U.S. secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation disclosed a list of its donors — separated into tiers by amount given — to reassure the public and Congress that the former first lady would avoid any potential conflicts of interest in her new perch atop Foggy Bottom.
“I agree that these are matters that have to be handled with the greatest of care and transparency,” Clinton said during her confirmation hearing.
A look at one organization that made a donation in the range of $1 million to $5 million shows how the Clintons’ gestures toward transparency often revealed little. Meet Friends of Arabia, or FSA, a thinly veiled public-relations organ of the repressive Saudi regime.
In a testament to the Clinton Foundation’s confusing, tangled, and secretive finances, Friends of Saudi Arabia’s former CEO, Michael Saba, denies that the nonprofit ever made the contribution. He suggests, rather, that the group’s founders, which included members of the Saudi royal family, made the donation before filing papers with the IRS. For three years, the now-defunct FSA functioned as a propaganda tool for the Saudis, a mission that put it at odds not only with some parts of the State Department’s assessment of the regime, but also with Hillary Clinton’s attempts to position herself as a champion for women’s rights across the globe.
FSA was closely tied to the Saudi regime. A 2005 tax form identified Dr. Selwa Al-Hazzaa, head of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital, as chairman of the board. Saudi King Abdullah appointed her to the Saudi legislature in 2013, shortly after women were allowed to join the body.
FSA’s work earned the contempt of activists pushing for reforms in Saudi Arabia.
Muna Abu Soliman, known as “Saudi Arabia’s Oprah,” served as FSA’s director. She went on to found a charity on behalf of the Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a leading member of the royal family who was financing pro-Arab curricula in U.S. schools when FSA launched. Bin Talal has made little secret of his intentions in the U.S.: In 2002, he complained that Bill Clinton was paid $267,000 to speak at the Jeddah Economic Forum, an annual summit hosted in Saudi Arabia: “He could not serve the Arab cause as he is out of office,” he said.
FSA’s work earned the contempt of activists pushing for reforms in Saudi Arabia. “These are Saudi apologists,” Ali Alyami, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, tells NR. “The country depends on propaganda. . . . When I saw the name ‘Friends of Saudi Arabia,’ I knew exactly what they were going to do and who was paying them. I just wrote them off.”
Certainly, FSA helped the Saudi government’s cause. Saba says that Al-Hazzaa and Soliman helped found the group because they “were concerned that maybe the correct story wasn’t being told” about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. They disliked that “you just kind of get this picture that women over there play no role in their own society and are not meaningful contributors to what’s going on,” Saba tells me. The women left the group after that first year.
Al-Hazza and Soliman offered a vision of their country that conflicted with that promulgated by Hillary Clinton’s State Department, which issued a 2011 report stating that “societal discrimination based on widespread gender segregation excluded women from most aspects of public life” in the country.
FSA worked to counter such critiques. “Our elected officials here in the United States and a lot of their diplomats seem to be having a difficult time reconnecting between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and there are a lot of insurgent countries continuing to drive a wedge between us,” Hal Delano Roosevelt told a Georgia-based trade publication in 2008. (Roosevelt, the grandson of Franklin, had joined the group as treasurer in 2006.) “There’s a vast difference between what does go on in Saudi Arabia and what is being portrayed to us through the media.”
Saudi government officials promoted the organization by attending events and presenting an FSA award to the man who piloted an airplane that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had given the Saudi king during a visit in 1945.
FSA’s inaugural event, which commemorated that meeting in 1945 with FDR, was a public-relations boon for the Saudi royals, as Bill Clinton and other American dignitaries recorded videos or otherwise participated in the festivities. “These people I’m talking about were almost equivalent to American royalty, even though we don’t have royalty,” Saba recalls to NR. “The Bush connection, the Clinton connection . . . these were all people who saw value in the relationship and stated that in various events that we did.”
It’s not clear whether Friends of Saudi Arabia donated to the Clinton Foundation before or after the former president recorded a video of FSA’s inauguration party, or even if the group wrote the check at all.
“It was nothing I ever authorized,” says Saba. The nonprofit raised just $2.35 million during its three-year existence from 2005 to 2007, according to IRS documents, and the tax filings contain no record of the contribution. Saba suggests that FSA might’ve made the donation to the Clinton Foundation when it was simply “a de facto group” of people troubled to see Saudi Arabia “misrepresented in the U.S.,” Then, he suggests, perhaps the donation was misattributed by the foundation. (The Clinton Foundation did not reply to a request for information about the source of the money.)
“There’s nothing illegal about that, particularly if the donor doesn’t really care about a U.S. income-tax deduction,” says Marcus Owens, who led the IRS’s tax-exempt division from 1990 to 2000. “If you’re a Saudi prince, that’s probably true — you really don’t care.”
FSA’s apparent donation to the Clinton Foundation shows how the Saudi Arabian regime uses money to gain support in the United States.
Questions about foreign-government donations to the Clinton Foundation have dogged 2016 Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton for months. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the foundation had accepted such donations throughout Clinton’s tenure as the nation’s top diplomat; the scandal expanded with the publication of Peter Schweizer’s book, Clinton Cash, which chronicles a pattern in which governments and private entities with business before the State Department donated heavily to the foundation and then received favorable treatment.
In the case of FSA, Saba warns against overstating its ties to the Saudi royal family, despite the connection to Prince Alwaleed and a 2008 news account suggesting that the group was founded at the behest of King Abdullah. “It was more minor princes that were involved in it,” says Saba, who described himself as a personal friend of the late king earlier this year.
In the judgment of Alyami, of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, FSA’s apparent donation to the Clinton Foundation shows how the Saudi Arabian regime uses money to gain support in the United States. “Our government and our people are for sale, and the Saudis know how to buy,” he says.
FSA has closed its doors, but Saba maintains his Saudi ties. A presentation for a recently formed business venture touts Saba’s “unparalleled access to Saudi Arabia and other Middle East and overseas markets.” It features a photo of Saba, King Abdullah, and the pilot who was honored by FSA, with a simple caption: “access.”
— Joel Gehrke is political reporter for National Review Online.