The Austrian government has threatened to close a controversial Saudi-sponsored religious dialogue center because of the latter's failure to condemn the flogging of a Saudi human rights activist and blogger.
Saudi Arabia has responded to the threat by issuing a counter-threat to move the permanent headquarters of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC] out of the Austrian capital of Vienna.
The dust-up began in mid-January, when Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann expressed public outrage over the refusal of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue [KAICIID] to speak out against the flogging of Raif Badawi, a Saudi human rights activist and blogger who has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for "insulting Islam."
That KAICIID, which is headquartered at the Palais Sturany in the heart of Vienna and has the status of an international organization, is ostensibly dedicated to "serving humanity" by "fostering dialogue" between the world's major religions, in order to "prevent conflict."
The KAICIID says that while it condemns all forms of violence, it has not spoken out specifically about Badawi because it does not want to get involved in the internal affairs of other countries.
The center was inaugurated in November 2012 in an elaborate ceremony attended by more than 650 high-profile guests from around the world, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the foreign ministers of the center's three founding states, Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh, which is financing the KAICIID for the first three years at an annual budget of 10-15 million euros ($11-17 million), has promised that there will be "zero politics, zero influence in the center."
But the primary focus of the King Abdullah Center has been to promote a program called "The Image of the Other," which examines "stereotypes and misconceptions" about Islam in education, the media and the Internet.
The KAICIID has been mired in controversy from the very beginning, largely because of Saudi Arabia's dismal record on human rights. Some critics have charged that the center is an attempt by Riyadh to establish a permanent "propaganda center" in central Europe from which to spread the conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam.
Others say the Saudis deliberately chose Vienna to serve as the headquarters for the new organization because of the city's historic role in preventing Islam from overrunning Christian Europe during the Siege of Vienna in 1529 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The Saudis, they say, are simply fighting a new phase of a very old conflict.
The center-left Green Party, which governs Vienna in a coalition, has said that the KAICIID glorifies a country "where freedom of religion and opinion are foreign words." In a statement, the party advised:
"Austria should not allow itself to be misused in this way, to allow itself to be involved in whitewash by a repressive Saudi regime which is using this center as a fig leaf for its dishonorable human rights situation."
The center-right newspaper Die Presse, in an editorial published in October 2011, warned:
"The Austrian government needs to ask itself whether it knows what it is doing: Is it not known that as the state religion of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism is fiercely opposed to other religions and uses 'intercultural dialogue' as a means for aggressive proselytizing?
"To clarify: Wahhabism is the only officially recognized and allowed religion in Saudi Arabia. Other forms of Islam and other religions are banned and persecuted by the state. Saudi Arabia is the only Islamic state in which there is no church, no synagogue and no other place of worship of any other religion. Shiite Muslims have been systematically discriminated against for decades. Jews are even forbidden to enter the Kingdom.
"Saudi Arabia practices a form of Sharia law that is one of the most brutal systems in the world. Saudi Arabia has at all times rejected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Women may not drive a car and can be punished by flogging. Corporal punishment, including amputations and executions, are part of everyday life in the country. Just two weeks ago a Sudanese immigrant in Saudi Arabia was publicly beheaded for 'sorcery.' Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world in which the death penalty is enforced even on teenagers.
"Does the Austrian Foreign Ministry really want to give such a state the opportunity to build an international propaganda center in Austria?"
Chancellor Faymann is the most senior Austrian politician to suggest that the KAICIID should be closed. In a January 16 interview with the newspaper Der Standard, Faymann said:
"This center does not fulfill at all the mandate of dialogue and is silent about basic issues of human rights. We will not tolerate this. It is clear to me from today's perspective that we should get out."
In a January 20 interview with public radio Oe1, Faymann said:
"An inter-religious dialogue center that remains silent when it is time to speak out clearly for human rights is not worthy of being called a dialogue center. It is a silence center.
"It cannot possibly be that we have a center in Austria with the title 'inter-religious dialogue' while at the same time someone who actually engages in this is in prison and fearing for his life."
Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, however, is urging restraint. In a 22-page report published on January 27, he argues that closing the KAICIID completely could have a litany of unintended economic, diplomatic and political repercussions, including causing major damage to Vienna's image as a host city for many international organizations.
Kurz is especially concerned that Saudi Arabia might make good on threats, made to the Austrian Ambassador to Riyadh, to relocate the headquarters of OPEC away from Vienna, where it has been based since 1965. Saudi Arabia is OPEC's biggest oil producer and its most influential member.
In any event, the report concludes: "Closing the center would do nothing to improve the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia."
The report, which states that there are "deficiencies in the center's structure, working methods and communication policy," proposes an alternative course of action: the KAICIID should be fundamentally reformed.
The first step in this reform apparently involves the removal of KAICIID's deputy director, former Austrian Justice Minister Claudia Bandion-Ortner, who has been criticized for downplaying Saudi Arabia's human rights record. In an interview with the newsmagazine Profil in October 2014, for example, Bandion-Ortner defended the desert kingdom. "Beheadings do not occur there every Friday," she said. "That is nonsense."
Faymann has agreed — for now — to consider proposals for a "substantive, structural reorganization" of the KAICIID which, at a minimum, would require the center to "make a clear commitment to religious freedom" and a "strong commitment to human rights." If the center cannot be reformed along these lines, however, Faymann says Austria should initiate an "orderly retreat."
Faymann remains skeptical that the KAICIID can be reformed. In a January 28 interview with the Wiener Zeitung, he said:
"For me, I see no basis [for reform] either now or in the future. If this center says it stands for interreligious dialogue, then it must do so. But if it wants to remain only an economic center with a religious fig leaf, then Austria should no longer be a part of it. In any event, Austria will not allow itself to be threatened or blackmailed."
In the meanwhile, Kurz plans to travel to Riyadh during the second half of February to de-escalate the crisis in bilateral relations. It remains unclear whether he will ask Saudi authorities for the release of Raif Badawi.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.