Museums Pressured to Reassess Ties with Saudi Arabia Following Journalist’s Disappearance

In the wake of the disappearance of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, museums and cultural institutions are being forced to reevaluate their relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has been accused of brutally killing Khashoggi, the journalist and columnist at the Washington Post who entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and was never seen again.

Many are questioning how museums will respond to the situation and whether they will refuse future funding offers from the country or cut ties with it altogether. The New York Times spoke to several leaders of museums that are currently mounting exhibitions and hosting programming as part of a yearlong Arab art initiative, which aims to “build greater understanding between the United States and the Arab world” and is spearheaded by Edge of Arabia—a UK-based organization partially funded by the Saudi government. Overall, many of the institutions said that they will continue to work with the country.

“As a global cultural institution, a core activity of our museum is to engage with representatives from museums and governments around the world,” Daniel Weiss, the Met’s president and chief executive, told the New York Times. However, in regard to the alleged assassination, he added that the museum is “in the process of learning more” and that its level of engagement with Saudi Arabia will depend upon whether any additional information comes to light.

Saudi Arabia has also been known to give millions of dollars to American universities and other organizations such as the Clinton Foundation, which was under scrutiny for accepting $10 million from the government for its work fighting poverty. The allegations also sparked a demonstration at the Natural History Museum in London, where people gathered to protest an event held at the institution by the Saudi Embassy. The act mirrored the protest against London’s Design Museum in July over its decision to rent the venue to an international arms dealer. 

While Scott Zuke of the Washington, DC–based Middle East Institute said that the organization will no longer participate in Edge of Arabia’s upcoming events in protest of Saudi Arabia and its alleged role in the gruesome crime—Turkish officials claim Khashoggi was abducted by Saudi operatives, murdered, and then dismembered—it may not be surprising that more drastic action against the country isn’t being taken. The nation frequently makes headlines over its human rights violations, and President Donald Trump seems to support Saudi Arabia amid the backlash. According to CNN, he said that the Saudi king’s denial of the accusations was “very strong” and even offered an alternate version of the event in which “rogue killers” were responsible.

While responses to the incident have been varied, Stephen Stapleton, founding director of Edge of Arabia, told that the Arab Art & Education Initiative will continue despite the disruption of some its programming. “We are grateful that all partner venues in New York have remained committed to the Arab Art & Education Initiative and that we all stand firm and enthusiastic about launching the first pan-Arab cultural program across New York City.”

He added: “We believe it is now more important than ever to present these kinds of open and free cross-cultural platforms in the US; allowing artists to present work, explore complex and often challenging subject matter with communities across the city, whilst also building upon New York’s rich history of cultural diversity and exchange.”