Opinions diverge: Either Vienna’s Saudi-funded centre for religious dialogue will serve Wahhabi propaganda, or it will stimulate dialogue and strengthen reformist elements in the Saudi regime. Chances are it will do neither.
Rather, there will be polite talk in moderate tones; and any conclusions will stay safely in Vienna.
Autocrats rely on liberal institutions – such as Western business schools, international organisations and charities – to gain respectability abroad. Far from a mere nicety, this is necessary to gain access to foreign bank accounts and property markets, and to reward followers with postings to elegant European capitals. It is the very precondition for an unsavoury elite’s global mobility.
Vienna has played an important role in this transaction: It is the world’s diplomatic clearing house.
As the Gaddafis knew: The late colonel’s son, Saif-al Islam, obtained his MBA from the private Imadec University in Vienna’s 13th District. Having failed to get a visa to Switzerland or the U.S., Saif’s admission to an Austrian institution, and his close relations to Jörg Haider while his party was in power, were crucial stepping stones to becoming Libya’s liberal face abroad.
None of this stopped him from threatening "rivers of blood" when confronted with calls for democracy at home.
Vienna’s new religious centre, meanwhile, may add little more than a fashionable line to the business cards of Saudi officials.