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Saudi Leaders Are Choking Charitable Giving

Saudi Arabia, a strategically important country, is in danger of becoming an outlaw government.  The world reacted with revulsion when Saudi officials lured journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the consulate in Istanbul and then coldly murdered him. The regime has also led a coalition responsible for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – a famine – in Yemen. Long-loyal government officials, members of the royal family, and others have been barred from leaving the country, tortured and even killed.

Lost in this parade of horrors are financial crimes that might not be as heinous but are nonetheless serious. Thousands of Saudis have had their property taken without warning. Saudi authorities have appropriated billions of dollars without so much as a court hearing. Millions of poor people around the world have been harmed as a result of such caprice.

In 2017, Prince Turki bin Abdullah , the CEO of the $4 billion King Abdullah Foundation, was arrested on orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS. Abdullah is still being detained although hasn’t been charged with any crime. The assets of the foundation were frozen and are currently held at the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia. Saudi philanthropist Amr Al-Dabbagh’s U.K.-based Stars Foundation’s activities have also been frozen, as have Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi’s charitable projects in Africa. In addition, members of the King Abdullah family and other prominent businessmen and royal family members have had their Saudi-based bank accounts zeroed out.

Why does this matter? The King Abdullah Foundation, the legacy of the late king, is one of the world’s major philanthropies. It has given millions of dollars for health care, low-income housing, and refugee relief. And it planned to give far more. All that has come to a screeching halt, harming many would-be beneficiaries.

I know this from personal experience. In 2016, the U.S. Patent Office issued my start-up software company, Sparo, its fifth and sixth patents, which help make it enjoyable and easy to donate to charitable causes. Sparo’s goal is to become a global platform that expands charitable giving, especially in the Arab world, and the King Abdullah Foundation was eager to assist.

We discussed using Sparo to help nonprofits ranging from helping the Malala Fund educate refugee Rohingya girls in Bangladesh to food banks in the U.S., including those in the Washington, D.C. area.  But after Prince Turki was arrested, members of the Abdullah family couldn’t make the investments they had planned.

As the world’s largest exporter of petroleum, Saudi Arabia and its stability matter to the global economy. Protecting U.S.-Saudi relations and pressuring MBS to reverse his actions are not mutually exclusive.

President Trump and members of the U.S. Congress should demand that MBS unfreeze the assets of all Saudi-based non-profits, including the King Abdullah Foundation, and allow those assets to be transferred to the U.S. for management by American-based wealth managers. Prince Turki should be freed from confinement and other royal family members under house arrest should be allowed to travel without restrictions. Saudi banks should be forced to return the money they unlawfully took from prominent business leaders and members of the royal family when they zeroed out their accounts.

These actions would help millions of needy people around the world. The day that MBS allows the King Abdullah Foundation to once again work with groups devoted to charity is the day hope will be revived for those less fortunate among us. Beneficiaries would range from people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease to scientists who are trying to conquer cancer. Aid will also flow to the many people who, through no fault of their own, have become refugees in a foreign land.

With some help from enlightened leaders in Washington, Sparo and other technology platforms can deliver on the promise of capitalism with a conscience. But first, now-restricted Saudi foundations must be allowed to resume their charitable partnerships.

S. Rob Sobhani is an entrepreneur and author of “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence.”

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