Elections

Arab nations’ donations to Clinton Foundation: Curing world’s ills or currying favor?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the New America Foundation (NAF) conference at the Newseum May 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the New America Foundation (NAF) conference at the Newseum May 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. MCT

Four oil-rich Arab nations, all with histories of philanthropy to United Nations and Middle Eastern causes, have donated vastly more money to the Clinton Foundation than they have to most other large private charities involved in the kinds of global work championed by the Clinton family.

Since 2001, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates gave as much as $40 million to the Clinton Foundation. In contrast, six similar non-governmental global charities collected no money from those same four Middle Eastern countries; the International Committee of the Red Cross was given $6.82 million. Since 2001, these global foundations have raised a staggering $40 billion to $50 billion to fund their humanitarian work.

The existence of foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation has been well-documented in the media. What hasn’t been revealed, however, is the disparity in donations by these four nations, all of which have been criticized by the State Department over the years for a spate of issues ranging from the mistreatment of women to stoking ethnic discord in the flammable Middle East.

Moreover, the level of Arab support for the Clinton Foundation, which occurred during the time Hillary Clinton was a U.S. senator, was seeking the Democratic nomination for president against Barack Obama, and was serving as secretary of state, fuels questions about the reasons for the donations. Were they solely to support the foundation’s causes, or were they designed to curry favor with the ex-president and with a potential future president?

Mideast nations favor contributions to Clinton Foundation

Between 2001 and 2014 Middle Eastern countries gave $18 million to $50 million to the Clinton Foundation, accounting for 1.4 to 4 percent of contributions over the period. In contrast, the same nations gave about $6.82 million to the International Committee for the Red Cross, accounting for less than 1 percent of the $11.2 billion in contributions the organization received.

Saudi Arabia

$10 million to $25 million

Qatar

$1 million to $5 million

Oman

$1 million to $5 million

UAE

$1 million to $5 million

Other charities fared even worse

Saudi Arabia's contribution places it within the top 20 donors to the Clinton Foundation. None of countries sampled were in the top contributors to other major charities examined:

Doctors Without Borders

Total reported 2003-2013: $9.28 billion

Save the Children

Total reported 2011-2013: $4.51 billion

World Vision International

Total reported 2011-2013: $5.34 billion

Task Force for Global Health

Total reported 2011-2013: $5.58 billion

Habitat for Humanity

Total reported 2011-2014: $1.44 billion

Project Hope

Total reported 2003-2013: $1.96 billion

Oxfam International

Total reported 2009-2014: $4.76 billion

“The fundamental issue here is that you’ve got foreign businesses and foreign governments giving money to the Clinton Foundation partly because of the foundation’s work, but also because of the access to the upper echelons of power in America,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a prize-winning author of numerous books on politics. “I think the people who know something about politics understand the wink and a nod that’s going on here: Give to Bill and become a friend of Hillary. . . . There’s kind of a political shakedown going on here.”

Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton, said that “it’s simply wrong to assert or even suggest” that donations to the foundation have influenced her foreign policy positions.

Former President Clinton has defended his organization’s receipt of foreign donations as doing “a lot more good than harm.”

Hillary Clinton’s quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, which just months ago seemed like a walk in the park, is under siege from many quarters. Republicans in Congress are investigating her use of a private email server to conduct State Department business and the subsequent “unilateral” destruction of her emails. Even some Democrats are now urging the party to find another candidate over Clinton.

Clinton Foundation spokesman Craig Minassian said: “Like many global charities, the Clinton Foundation receives support from individuals, private sector organizations, non-governmental organizations and governments around the world because our programs are improving the lives of people around the world. Among the more than 300,000 contributors to the Clinton Foundation are countries that have also given billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and support to other charities.”

To be sure, wealthy Arab nations have given billions of dollars to United Nations and World Health Organization programs to aid victims of poverty, wars and calamities from earthquakes to deadly epidemics. According to the United Nations’ Financial Tracking Service, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have donated more than $5 billion to humanitarian causes, including tens of millions of dollars to Middle East chapters of the Red Crescent Society, since 2001.

With a few exceptions, most notably foundations run by ex-presidents, the other four Arab governments gave far less money to eight of the largest Western charities doing work similar work to that of the Clinton Foundation, whose expanded agenda now includes fighting AIDS in Africa, climate change and obesity, as well as rebuilding earthquake-ravaged Haiti. One huge foundation that aggressively secures pledges from governments worldwide, the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has received $62 million from Saudi Arabia and $3.5 million from the United Arab Emirates since 2001.

The U.S. embassies of the four Middle Eastern countries declined to respond to inquiries from McClatchy.

Charities aren’t required to publicly identify their donors, and their disclosure is spotty. Few disclose more than their top donors and most list only a dollar threshold that the donation exceeds. Others disclose nothing.

On its website, the Clinton Foundation goes further, providing a list of more than 282,000 donors, itemized in dollar ranges, such as $10,001-$25,000. Like most charities, the Clinton group does not say which individual donors are related to which companies, countries or institutions, so it would be a vexing job to determine the full extent of the interests they represent.

The foundation says that Saudi Arabia has donated $10 million to $25 million between 2001 and 2014, while Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates each gave $1 million to $5 million. In addition, former longtime UAE President Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the driving force behind his country’s formation, and Nasser Al-Rashid, an adviser to the Saudi royal family, each has donated $1 million to $5 million.

Nonetheless, a McClatchy review of available annual reports and contacts with several charities showed that:

– The contributions from the four Arab countries – between $15 million and $40 million – to the Clinton Foundation was much as five times what they donated to the much larger International Committee for the Red Cross between 2004 and 2013.

– The Washington-based Habitat for Humanity and England-based Save the Children International and Oxfam International reported no donations from the Persian Gulf governments, according to financial reports and spokespersons for the charities.

– Washington state-based World Vision International, the Georgia-based Task Force for Global Health and Virginia-based Project Hope have not sought nor received donations from Middle Eastern nations, according to their spokespersons.

– An eighth charity, Paris-based Doctors Without Borders, whose physicians have put their lives in peril to treat Ebola victims in West Africa, has raised $9.2 billion since 2003 but didn’t list any of the Middle Eastern countries among its top donors during that span.

Some charities have strict vetting processes. Oxfam International, for example, puts all donations through an “ethical screening process,” including an assessment of “whether acceptance of a donation might pose a risk to the independence of our voice and action,” said Andrew Barton, the organization’s associate director for international income development.

Clinton Foundation spokesman Minassian said the family organization “has strong donor integrity and transparency practices that go well beyond what is required of U.S. charities.”

“Should Secretary Clinton decide to run for office, we will continue to ensure the foundation’s policies and practices regarding support from international partners are appropriate, just as we did when she served as secretary of state,” he said.

However, no such precautions were in place during Hillary Clinton’s first run for the presidency in the first five months of 2008. A Clinton Foundation official who was not authorized to speak on the record said that Oman donated to one of its major programs, the Clinton Global Initiative, during that period but did not disclose the amount.

When a former president is involved, donations from the Arab countries seem to flow more freely.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait each gave more than $1 million to help launch the Bush Center, honoring former President George W. Bush, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and are its only foreign donors, said Hannah Abney, a center spokeswoman. The names of all three nations are etched in a wall at the center.

The Carter Center honoring former President Jimmy Carter, who brokered a historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, listed Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the sultan of Oman as each donating more than $1 million by 1999, the earliest annual report posted on its website. Each of those nations has since donated hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

In defending his foundation’s receipt of foreign donation during a March 7 event at the University of Miami, former President Clinton pointed to money accepted from the United Arab Emirates.

“Do we agree with everything they do? No. But they’re helping us fight ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

“Do I agree with all of the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia?” he said. “No. . . . You’ve got to decide when you do this work whether it will do more good than harm if someone helps you from another country.”

It’s unclear how much Hillary Clinton was informed about the foundation’s donors before 2013, when the foundation was reconstituted as the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, adding hers and the Clintons’ daughter to its name. However, she could have found out with a couple of clicks of a computer mouse on the foundation’s website.

Before Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, Obama’s transition team and the foundation agreed to limit potential conflicts of interest by prohibiting foreign governments from donating “materially” more money than they did in previous years.

The Washington Post reported recently that, among seven countries that donated during those years, was a new donor, Algeria, whose $500,000 contribution put the foundation in violation of the agreement. Algeria was lobbying the State Department at the time amid rising concerns that its government had engaged in human rights abuses, including restricting women’s rights.

Minassian said that Algeria’s embassy in Washington sent an unsolicited check to the Clinton Foundation Haiti Relief Fund days after the island nation was rocked by an earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. While the money was distributed as “direct aid to Haiti,” he said, “the State Department should have been informed once the foundation became more aware of Algeria’s contribution.”

Foundation officials did not seek pre-approval from the Obama administration “because of the urgency of Haiti’s needs,” he said.

Longtime observers of the Clintons express little surprise that one of the nation’s most powerful couples is again engulfed in controversy.

Patrick Griffin, who headed the White House’s congressional liaison office during Bill Clinton’s first term, said the foreign donations are far less troubling than dealings that put money directly into the pockets of some former presidents.

Griffin, who now works at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, cited Ronald Reagan’s acceptance of $1 million each from a Japanese communications firm and the Tokyo government for two speeches during a trip to Japan months after he left office. Bill Clinton has raised over $100 million in fees from giving speeches since he left office in 2001.

Griffin conceded that some foreign governments may be “trying to have some cachet” with former President Clinton and his wife.

“Knowing her to some extent,” he said, “I find it not credible to believe that she would be influenced by a donation to the foundation in the past about a decision that would affect American interests going forward.”

The Humphrey Institute’s Jacobs called it puzzling that, after President Clinton was embroiled in controversy over foreign campaign donations and other controversies in the 1990s, the Clintons would once again skirt the lines of propriety.

“Most people, once they’ve gotten singed, they would say, ‘Hey, we’re going back to the public arena. Let’s just play this above board.’” he said. “The Clintons instead take a formalistic reading of it, knowing full well that they’re going to face another barrage of criticism. . . . I think, frankly, there’s an arrogance of power here.”

Dian Zhang of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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