Natural History Museum defends hosting Saudi embassy event

London venue urged to cancel reception after Saudi journalist disappears in Istanbul

The Natural History Museum has defended an event it is hosting for the Saudi embassy in London as global outrage grows about the disappearance in Istanbul of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The museum said the reception on Thursday to celebrate Saudi Arabia Day was booked two months ago, none of its staff would attend, and

commercial events were an “important source of external funding”.

It has been accused of accepting Saudi “blood money” following Khashoggi’s suspected killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the kingdom’s continued bombing of civilians in Yemen and its use of the death penalty to enforce anti-homosexuality laws.

A member of the Justice for Jamal Khashoggi group holds a news conference in Washington DC
A member of the Justice for Jamal Khashoggi group holds a news conference in Washington DC. Photograph: Anadolu agency/Getty Images

The reception will be hosted by the Saudi ambassador to London, Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz.

The museum’s refusal to cancel the event has prompted calls from human rights campaigners for a protest to be held outside.

In a statement, the museum said: “Enabling commercial events to take place outside of public opening hours in our iconic spaces brings the museum an important source of external funding, which allows us to maintain our position as a world-class scientific research centre and visitor attraction.

“We hold a wide variety of commercial events and it is made clear to any host that doing so is not an endorsement of their product, service or views.”

The news emerged after the Guardian columnist Owen Jones was contacted about the event. “It’s been leaked to me that the Natural History Museum is hosting a reception for the Saudi embassy tonight, 7-9pm. The Saudi dictatorship is massacring thousands in Yemen and is currently accused of kidnapping and murdering a journalist. The NHM must cancel and apologise,” he said.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) said they planeed to demonstrate outside the event.

We are calling for a protest tonight at 6:30 outside @NHM_London, who are hosting an event for the #SaudiArabian embassy.

We wrote to the Museum urging them to cancel the event in light of the forced disappearance of #Jamal_Khashoggi

(Revealing a copy of the invitation)

— BIRD (@BirdBahrain_) October 11, 2018

Andrew Smith, from CAAT, said the museum “should not be hosting a regime which has been accused of killing journalists and is inflicting a humanitarian catastrophe on the people of Yemen”.

“The Saudi authorities have a contempt for human rights, and events like this will undoubtedly be regarded as an endorsement. It’s time for the museum to take a stand,” he said.

“We will be outside to send the message loudly and clearly that it is never acceptable for world-famous museums to host and legitimise human rights-abusing regimes and dictatorships.”

Sayed Alwadaei, the director of Bird, said: “Conducting business as usual with the Saudi regime normalises its crimes and emboldens it to continue its policy of repression and abuse.”

Polly Truscott, Amnesty International UK’s foreign affairs expert, said the museum should be “extremely wary of allowing its facilities to be used in any way that might appear to dignify human rights violations”.

She also urged the British government not to send any officials to the event unless they were prepared to openly challenge the Saudis on human rights.

Sarah Hayward, a former leader of Camden council, said Saudi money was an important source of revenue for many of London’s museums, but the Natural History Museum “should know better”.

The Saudi Government have long been funders of our big national museums. Particularly since the cuts to museum funding under Tory austerity. They understand culture as a means of pushing politics and aren't afraid to use it. Orgs like NHM should know better.

— Sarah Hayward (@Sarah_Hayward) October 11, 2018

The row shows how allegations of Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s suspected killing are straining relations between the UK and its ally.

On Wednesday, the US called on Saudi Arabia to be “transparent” about Khashoggi’s fate.


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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