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Saudi WikiLeaks Documents: Buying Influence and Sweeping Corruption


On 19 June 2015, WikiLeaks, the pre-eminent transparency advocacy website, said it would begin publishing more than 500,000 cables from the Saudi foreign ministry. WikiLeaks said in a statement that it had already posted about 60,000 files of the “Saudi cables,” mostly in Arabic, in what appears to be the largest WikiLeaks document dump since it began posting surreptitiously acquired documents in November 2010.

The cables contain secret communications from various Saudi embassies around the world, as well as “top secret” reports from other Saudi state institutions, including the ministry of interior and the Kingdom’s general intelligence services. The massive cache of data also contains many email communications between the ministry of foreign affairs and various foreign entities. The Saudi cables, which are published in tranches of tens of thousands of documents, expose royal-family intrigue, fear of neighbouring Iran, and distrust of the United States.

Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks who last June marked his third anniversary since seeking refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, said about the Saudi leaks, “The Saudi cables lift the lid on a increasingly erratic and secretive dictatorship that has not only celebrated its 100th beheading this year, but which has also become a menace to its neighbors and itself.”

The documents reveal extensive efforts to monitor and co-opt Arab media, making sure to correct any deviations in regional coverage of Saudi Arabia and Saudi-related matters. Saudi Arabia’s strategy for this co-optation takes the carrot-and-stick approach, referred to in the documents as “neutralization” and “containment.”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a hereditary, absolute monarchy that occupies a huge area between the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. It has a dismal human-rights record, according to Human Rights Watch, but nonetheless remains a top ally of the United States and the United Kingdom in the Middle East, largely because of its massive oil reserves, proven to be second only to those of Venezuela. KSA, which has led the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) since its inception in 1960, consistently tops the list of oil-producing countries, often trumping other members, giving the Kingdom disproportionate influence in international affairs. Each year it channels billions of petrodollars through US and UK banks, as well as American, British, and French arms industries. The Kingdom also leads the Gulf Cooperation Council and dominates the global Islamic charity market.

On 29 April 2015, Adel al-Jubeir, longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington, was appointed foreign minister, replacing Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz after 40 years, which made the latter the world’s longest serving foreign minister in history. Prince Saud al-Faisal died on 9 July 2015 in Los Angeles, from an undisclosed illness.

The documents offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the secretive Saudi royal family and shed light on the Kingdom’s interference in regional affairs. They highlight the Kingdom’s longstanding regional rivalry with Iran, its support for Syrian rebels and Egypt’s military-backed government, and its opposition to the then emerging international agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme, which has been known internationally as the Joint Comprehension Plan of Action between the 5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) and Iran (signed 14 July 2015, in Vienna).

According to one document, from 2012, a message from the Saudi embassy in Tehran to the foreign ministry in Riyadh highlights Saudi scepticism about the Iranian nuclear programme and scoffs at “flirtatious American messages” being carried to Iran via an unnamed Turkish mediator.

Another 2012 message, this time sent from the Saudi embassy in Abu Dhabi, said the United Arab Emirates was putting “heavy pressure” on the Egyptian government not to try former President Hosni Mubarak, who had been overthrown in a popular uprising the year before.

In a message of 14 August 2008, marked “classified and very urgent,” the foreign ministry wrote to the Saudi embassy in Washington to alert its diplomats that dozens of students from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries had visited the Israeli embassy in Washington as part of an international leadership programme. “They listened to diplomats’ briefings from the embassy employees, they asked questions, and then they took pictures,” the message said, asking the embassy for a speedy update on the situation.

Although the Saudi government encourages its citizens not to share the documents, calling many “fabricated,” they have not thus far irrefutably denied the existence of the documents. The government of Saudi Arabia seems concerned that its citizens might learn of the excesses of the members of the royal family. According to a report by the British newspaper The Independent, one of the most popular leaked documents pertains not to an internal embassy memo or a top-secret dossier but to “a simple invoice, sent from the short-changed owner of a Geneva limo company who had one of his customers leave the country when she owed him 1.5 million Swiss francs ($1.52 million).”

The bill has been linked to Princess Maha Al Ibrahim, the wife of senior Saudi royal Abdul-Rahman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. According to the Independent’s news story, the Associated Press called Louis Roulet, the administrator of the short-changed limo company, Golden Limousine services, and reported that he remembers the incident well and confirmed the authenticity of the document, although he said the total bill was “far more” than 1.5 million Swiss francs.