U.S. and Middle Eastern experts detailed a number of disturbing facts implicating both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in financing terrorism in the Middle East at a conference held by Frontiers of Freedom, entitled “Saudi Arabia and UAE: Regional Adventures and U.S. Interests,” on November 30, in Washington, D.C.
Speaking on a panel addressing financial money laundering and money transfers, David Aufhauser, a former legal adviser to the U.S. Treasury during President George W. Bush’s first term, said that in the 1980s and 1990s Saudi Arabia had spent “nearly $80 billion” to spread Wahhabi ideology throughout both Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Aufhauser described how Riyadh had established thousands of mosques and Qur’anic schools in a number of Islamic countries, which had contributed to the spread of extremist ideology and the emergence of takfiri movements and terrorist ideology. Through these Islamic institutions, the Saudis export their own ideology and version of Islam to the rest of the world.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. had obtained information indicating that Saudi funds allocated for the construction of mosques and schools were in fact invested in terrorist acts, according to Aufhauser.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. had obtained information indicating that Saudi funds allocated for the construction of mosques and schools were in fact invested in terrorist acts, according to Aufhauser. He stressed that although the Saudi funds had been slated for charitable purposes, U.S. officials firmly believe that both formal and informal transfers were used to finance terrorism, calling this “the main reason for the exacerbation of [these] problems.”
In 2009, leaked U.S. State Department memos revealed that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called for more to be done by U.S. diplomats to stop Gulf funding to extremists “since Saudi Arabia remains a critical support base for al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT), and other terrorist groups.”
Aufhauser reiterated Clinton’s sentiments. He described a 2017 State Department statement that named Saudi Arabia as a source of funds for terrorist groups, with transfers of funds being issued under the guise of charity projects.
He said that the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body established in the late 1980s, issued a report in November confirming that Saudi Arabia is not doing enough to “dry out” the sources of terrorist financing at the external level and accused the UAE of being the main hub for the transfer of funds used in terrorist acts.
Aufhauser went on to explain that more than 80 percent of wages in the UAE are transferred to foreign workers’ countries of origin. As these fund transfers may be used to finance terrorism, he questioned the “ability of the UAE authorities to monitor all these financial operations.”
Brian Saady, a political writer focusing on drug trafficking and money laundering, stated that the UAE is home to many foreign smugglers who contribute to terrorist financing. He said that the UAE is a “global money laundering center.” He also stated that the money transfer system, gold market, and real estate are vital domains for money laundering by smugglers and terrorists.
Saady remarked that most of the world’s cigarette, drug, and arms smugglers live in Dubai and have companies in the free zone there. Providing tax-free and duty-free customs benefits to foreign investors, free zones in the UAE have become a gateway for a remarkable number of global investors seeking business opportunities in the Middle East.
Dawood Ibrahim, for example, an Indian investor and smuggler living in Dubai, has been accused of involvement in several terrorist attacks in Bombay in 1993 that killed more than 250 people.
Saady noted that the Center for Advanced Defense Studies issued a study last summer, finding that real estate worth $107 million belongs to people on the U.S. sanctions list because of their involvement in matters related to the financing of terrorism.
Ben Freeman, a member of the Center for International Policy, spoke about the funds Saudi Arabia spends on its public relations networks to polish its image abroad.
Ben Freeman, a member of the Center for International Policy, spoke about the funds Saudi Arabia spends on its public relations networks to polish its image abroad. He explained that since the events of September 11, the kingdom has spent more than $100 million to improve its image and standing to persuade the U.S.government to avoid making decisions that are contrary to Saudi interests. The Saudi government, he said, had signed a $2 million annual contract with the firm of Qorvis Public Relations to promote the kingdom’s interests in Washington.
Over the course of the last six years, firms have been successful in lobbying for Riyadh and furthering its interests in Congress. “These companies,” he said, “were able to convince former President Barack Obama to sign a $115 billion arms sale to Riyadh.”
He stated that the money spent by Saudi Arabia on the public relations company last year amounted to $27 million, almost twice the amount spent in 2016; however, the total amount spent by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi together in 2016 was more than $50 million.
Freeman expressly called on U.S. officials to rely on experts who have a strong knowledge of all issues related to terrorism and financing, and not base their decisions on information provided by public relations companies.
The message of the panel was clear. Each of the experts urged the Trump administration to get the facts—to seek out specialists with strong knowledge of how terrorism in the MENA region is financed and by whom, especially in relation to the war in Yemen, rather than relying on information provided by the public relations firms that are paid millions of dollars to promote the interests of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.