By Matthew Weaver/Guardian News & Media
The UK’s Natural History Museum (NHM) 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 that the reception yesterday to celebrate Saudi Arabia Day was booked two months ago, none of its staff would attend, and that 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.
The reception was 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 (government) 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 that they planned to demonstrate outside the event.
Andrew Smith, from the CAAT, said that 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 the 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 that 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.
Sarah Hayward, a former leader of Camden council, said Saudi money was an important source of revenue for many museums, but the Natural History Museum “should know better “.
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.
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