Biden USAID Nominee Lavished Praise on Saudi Arabia—Until It Stopped Funding Her Think Tank

Tamara Cofman Wittes / Getty Images
June 21, 2022

President Joe Biden’s pick for a top spot at the U.S. Agency for International Development praised Saudi Arabia’s "exciting, productive, inspiring" social progress after her employer received a large grant from the kingdom—and did an about-face months later when the financial agreement was cut off after Riyadh’s assassination of activist Jamal Khashoggi.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a longtime fellow at the Brookings Institution, is seeking Senate confirmation for her nomination as assistant administrator at USAID. During her time at the think tank in 2018, Wittes received as much as $499,999 from Saudi Arabia, according to its annual report. Brookings told the Washington Post the Saudi grant was intended to fund an analysis of the "Saudi think tank sector," which is relatively small compared with other countries in the region. Saudi Arabia has 13 think tanks, according to an unrelated 2020 global study by the University of Pennsylvania, compared with 87 in Iran, 47 in Egypt, and 29 in Yemen. At the time of the grant, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud was trying to rebrand the country as modernizing and progressive.

Wittes visited Saudi Arabia in February of that year, posting a slideshow on the Brookings website that highlighted an alleged increase in women’s freedom and a growing tourism industry.

"The pace of change is really notable compared to my previous visits to the kingdom where there was a sense that the leadership of the country moved very slowly and cautiously. … It is clear that’s not the case now," she told Washington Jewish Week in a glowing article headlined "Saudi expert eyes changing kingdom."

While the nation said it would loosen restrictions on women's attire and driving in 2018, Saudi Arabia faced allegations of far-reaching war crimes in Yemen and crackdowns on dissidents and women's rights. Wittes published a mild criticism of the arrest of a Saudi female driving activist in May 2018, calling it "deeply sad and ironic" and a contrast with the "swift pace of change" she witnessed in the country.

Her comments could add to concerns from Republicans that Wittes helped bolster the reputations of Gulf state countries that donated to Brookings. Senate Republicans already raised questions during a confirmation hearing last week about Wittes’s praise for Qatar, which donated at least $22 million to Brookings during her employment. The think tank is facing scrutiny after its president, Gen. John Allen, stepped down last week amid a federal investigation into allegations that he worked as an unregistered lobbyist for Doha.

After Brookings terminated the Saudi funding in response to Khashoggi’s assassination, Wittes gave a much bleaker assessment of the country’s leadership—arguing that Khashoggi’s murder "catalyzed concerns that had already been growing about the young crown prince and his policy choices on other issues as well," and praising the U.S. Senate’s decision to cut off funding for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

"President Trump’s [supportive] behavior toward the Saudis and his statements make it look more like he’s the one being used. Like he’s being Mohammed bin Salman’s [son of a bitch] if you will," Wittes said on a Brookings podcast. "He doesn’t mind their gross violations of international norms, whether it’s murdering a journalist, hitting civilians with bombs, or other moves in regional policy."

Wittes also called for the United States to take a tougher stance against Saudi Arabia, telling the New York Times after Biden’s election that the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has "a lot of value" but "it simply cannot continue in the way it has for the last four years."

Wittes did not respond to a request for comment.

Republicans raised concerns at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week about Wittes receiving funding from the Qatari government—a country with a record of human rights abuses and anti-Israel terror financing—and for posting criticism about the historic peace accords between Israel and Arab states.

"The president of Brookings has resigned over [his financial ties with Qatar], but you ran the Middle East Center at Brookings," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas). "Should the American taxpayers be concerned that President Biden wants to put in charge of distributing millions of dollars of taxpayer money someone who has spent years being funded by a foreign nation who is not our friend?"

The Free Beacon first reported last week that Wittes described Qatar's capital city Doha as a "global gathering place for dialogue" and amplified Qatari leaders' claims that they support human rights and oppose "extremists who exploit religion to incite violence," while Brookings was raking in millions from the government.

She also posted articles on Twitter decrying the Abraham Accords, Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, as misogynistic, a "new Naksa"—referring to the Palestinian word for "setback"—and as a "triumph for authoritarianism."

Wittes denied that she opposed the accords, telling Cruz that she was "skeptical when the Emiratis made their announcement, which was breathtaking, in August 2020. I was skeptical that other Arab states would join them, and I was proven wrong."

Martin Indyk, the former vice president of Brookings who helped raise the funds from Doha, denied that the Qataris exercised any influence over the think tank’s work.

"They never showed any interest in what we wrote, the content," Indyk, who also served as former president Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, told Politico in an article last week. "What they were interested in was the cachet."

If confirmed, Wittes wouldn't be the first Biden administration official who received funding from the Qataris. Robert Malley, the special envoy for Iran and Biden's point man for the nuclear negotiations, ran the International Crisis Group when it took in $4 million from the Qatari government.

Hady Amr, the administration's special envoy to the Palestinians, was the founding director of the Qatari-funded Brookings Doha Center. Senior administration adviser Erin Pelton was previously a registered lobbyist for Qatar.