The controversial King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) will probably be leaving Vienna over the coming months, following years of criticism over the purpose of the organization.
Founded in 2012, the KAICIID is a Saudi-funded intergovernmental organization, whose stated mission is to promote dialogue to prevent and resolve conflicts that arising from differences in religious traditions. The organization, founded jointly by Austria, Saudi-Arabia and Spain, with the Vatican as observer, represents all religions and consists of a team of multicultural experts.
Since its formation, the KAICIID has repeatedly come under scrutiny for its refusal to address human rights violations within Saudi Arabia. Criticism intensified after former deputy secretary-general Claudia Bandion-Ortner acknowledged to Profil that while regular public executions did indeed take place there, it was “not every Friday.”
The Greens have been among the KAICIID’s loudest critics and have called for its closure. Since January 2015, activists have demonstrated in front of the headquarters, the Palais Sturany on the Ringstrasse, each Friday, most recently on June 19. The catalyst was the arrest of Saudi journalist Raif Badawi, who was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for creating an online forum for public debate and for allegedly insulting Islam, according to Amnesty International.
“This is about the most blatant violations of human rights,” Eva Glawischnig, former speaker and head of the Austrian Green Party, said in a statement. “Since freedom of expression and of religion are in the spotlight here and are actually the primary task of KAICIID, I also expect KAICIID to give a clear statement on Badawi.”
Although the KAICIID has confirmed its commitment to human rights, it never commented on the Badawi case. Instead, it aimed to distance itself from political and social narratives. According to the organization, these subjects are “divorced from its status and mission.”
But Saudi Arabia’s horrifying human rights record is nothing new. “Saudi Arabia has always been a repressive and violent place,” said Ebrahim Afsah, Professor of Islamic Law and Ethics at the University of Vienna and of International Law at the University of Copenhagen. “The regime’s underlying ideology, Wahhabism, is fundamentally incompatible with Western values and has always been extremely intolerant towards internal and external critics. Since 1979, they have very aggressively exported this ideology globally, something that has become abundantly clear since 9/11.”
Still, KAICIID does not represent Saudi Arabia and should not have been made responsible for the Badawi case, said Thomas Schmidinger, a professor of Political Science at the University of Vienna and expert on the Middle East. “The Saudi embassy should rather have been the contact person. But within Austria, the KAICIID has become synonymous with Saudi Arabia.”
In 2018, then Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl (appointed by the FPÖ) shut down efforts to close the headquarters, claiming this would harm Austria’s reputation as a host country of international organizations. Then, last summer, under the interim government, the National Assembly (Nationalrat) voted for a determination request. Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, citing worries of damage the country’s image, proposed a reform of the center, including the expansion of membership and closer ties to the United Nations. Ultimately, however, KAICIID itself has decided to leave Vienna.
The organization had no future in the city, said Schmidinger, citing media descriptions of the KAICIID as “a fig leaf” for Saudi’s human rights violations. The institute’s projects have largely been denounced by the political parties.
“In the last few years, the work of the KAICIID has included serious interreligious projects, including numerous useful initiatives for refugees who came to Europe in 2015,” Schimidinger said. “It is only that the organizations’ image has been damaged such that it was no longer reparable in the Austrian public’s eyes.”
Criticism came from, among others, Green Party parliamentarian Alev Korun, herself a Muslim, that the institute serves as a propaganda instrument and propagator of Wahhabism within Europe. To what extent this is true remains unclear. Wahhabism is a distinct, aggressive and narrow-minded form of Islam, which is inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia. By its nature, say experts, the faith is not open to interreligious dialogue.
“Wahhabism cannot accept other religions,” Afsah said. “It does not even accept other Islamic sects; so it is simply dishonest to speak of interreligious dialogue.”
However, from its work, there is no evidence that the KAICIID aimed to spread the Saudi belief system in the West. At its conferences, says Schmidinger, there were always representatives of both Shia and Sunni sects.
“In the past nine years, I have not seen that the KAICIID fulfilled this propaganda role, even if it was planned,” said Ambassador Emil Brix, director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. “There have been a series of interesting interreligious dialogues, but the public perception about political debate and the organization’s mandate created a contradiction that has never been resolved.”
To Brix and Schmidinger, the dispute over the KAICIID stems from the Saudi’s dominant role in the organization and other flaws in its initial design.
From the start, religion and state were inseparable, creating uneasy management relationships among the KAICIID’s members. Efforts to collaborate between Saudi Arabia, a country where religion is deeply tied to the state, and the secular Roman Catholic states of Austria and Spain plus the Vatican, was problematic, said Schmidinger.
The problem might have been resolved with the expansion of membership, as proposed by Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in January, to reform the organization by bringing in a more equal balance of power, which might have addressed the public outcry.
“If you actually want to have an international organization that deals with religious conflicts, you would have to put a lot more time and energy into the formation process and get rivals around a table, including states like Iran, Israel and Turkey,” Schmidinger said.
Discussions with Morocco, Nigeria, Japan and maybe Argentina are allegedly in the final phase, as reported by the Austrian daily Kurier. However, the fact that they have not yet joined also raises questions about the organization’s willingness to collaborate, said Islamic Law professor Afsah.
“Morocco is facing economic collapse and is incredibly dependent on Saudi Arabia, especially on Saudi investments and tourism,” Afsah said. “If the KAICIID cannot even get the Moroccans to join, that is a sign.”
Another point of contention is that the center is named after a Saudi and Wahhabi king, a decision by then Austrian Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Wolfgang Spindelegger, which in turn raises questions about Austria’s role in KAICIID.
It may have simply been a case of diplomatic opportunism. “The idea was that the Saudis would bring us an international institution, which brings money and adds to Vienna’s reputation as a city of diplomacy,” Schmidinger said. “The government behaved a bit like a trader at a bazaar, where they got a special offer.”
Although the Austrian government has not expelled the KAICIID, its decision – as yet not final – to leave and move to Geneva, puts Austria in a bad light. “Neither the creation of the project nor the expulsion is much of a display of Austrian diplomacy,” Schmidinger admitted. “I think this was a complete failure from the beginning.”
In a worst-case scenario, said Afsah, Saudi Arabia could even take action against Austria, which would not be the first time the Kingdom has fought back. Two years ago, Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador and suspended trade and investment following Canada’s foreign minister demanding the release of civil rights activists.
However, KAICIID’s exit will most likely not jeopardize the city’s reputation. Worries that organizations like OPEC could leave Vienna are probably unfounded. Austria has not kicked the organization out, and will most likely renegotiate KAICIID’s Seat Agreement.
“I am sure that the Austrian government will adhere to the headquarters agreement and will scrupulously apply relevant international law,” Afsah said. “Only a breach of the law would have a negative impact on Vienna as a diplomatic center.”