Sunday, June 21, 2015

21-Jun-15: Some rare insights into what the Saudis have been up to

All over the global media today - the Saudi
Cables [Image Source]
What the Saudis say about themselves tends to be filled with platitudes and self-praise, as we pointed out just a couple of days ago ["18-Jun-15: Saudi advice on showing love and compassion and dealing with others nicely"]. Its current ruler, His Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, provided an illuminating instance of how that works just this past Wednesday when he extolled what he called Saudi "humanitarian activities":
We are happy to serve Muslims all over the world... Islam works for goodness and reform and promotes constructive activities. It follows moderation, backs dialogue and brings people together... Muslims should do their duties in the best form and deal with others nicely.
Thousands of documents released via Wikileaks this weekend (61,195 of them now freshly uploaded as of tonight, and a Wikileaks promise of half a million more to appear in the coming weeks) give a starkly different view of Saudi activities. The fugitive WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange (who on Friday 'celebrated' the third anniversary of taking up residence inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London) introduces them this way:
"The Saudi Cables lift the lid on an increasingly erratic and secretive dictatorship that has not only celebrated its 100th beheading this year, but which has also become a menace to its neighbours and itself," 
We have not reviewed any of them ourselves. But the Wikileaks page asserts that they are made up of "extensive correspondence" between Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassy in Canberra, Australia revealing
sustained Saudi efforts to influence political and religious opinion within Australia's Arabic and Islamic communities [and] bribing and co-opting key individuals and institutions...
Website of Australian Federation of Islamic Councils
Some highlights from a report published today in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald suggests deep Saudi penetration of Australia's Arab communities, as well as the buying of influence and tracking of dissenting Saudi voices:
  • WikiLeaks has revealed secret Saudi Arabian influence in Arabic media and Islamic religious groups in Australia... 
  • The documents include instructions from the Saudi government to its embassy relating to the payment of large subsidies from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information to prominent Arabic newspapers and media organisations in Australia...
  • The Saudi embassy is also revealed to pay close attention to the political and religious beliefs of Saudi university students studying in Australia with reports sent to the Mabahith, the General Investigation Directorate of the Saudi Ministry of Interior, the Kingdom's brutal secret police that deals with domestic security and counter-intelligence. 
  • [And] Saudi government funding for building mosques and supporting Islamic community activities in Australia.
  • [Also evidence of Saudi pre-occupation with Iranian] Shiite Islamic leaders to engage with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils 
  • [T]he kingdom's funding of visits to Australia by Sunni Islamic clerics to counter Shiite influence.
  • [E]xtensive Saudi efforts to influence and neutralise critical opinion in foreign media, including widespread use of monetary contributions and subsidies.
Saudi Arabia's own media have so far been careful to ignore what the rest of the world is seeing today. Although these can be accessed from wherever people can get connected to the Internet, that's not what the Saudi government is recommending its subjects do - quite the opposite.
Saudi Arabia on Saturday urged its citizens not to distribute "documents that might be faked" in an apparent response to WikiLeaks' publication on Friday of more than 60,000 documents it says are secret Saudi diplomatic communications. The statement, made by the Foreign Ministry on its Twitter account, did not directly deny the documents' authenticity... The world's top oil exporter, an absolute monarchy, is highly sensitive to public criticism and has imprisoned activists for publishing attacks on the ruling Al Saud dynasty and senior clerics. It maintains tight control over local media... [Reuters, June 20, 2015]
Saudis, and anyone else interested in a rare glimpse into what the Saudi power elite get up to when they think people are not watching, have plenty of material to sort through. For instance, an incident from Geneva, 2009, given global prominence via an AP report of the leaked papers, concerns the well-connected wife of a Saudi insider who used to serve as deputy minister of defense and aviation:
"Princess Maha Al Ibrahim... the wife of senior Saudi royal Abdul-Rahman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud... skipped town after failing to pay a first installment of 1.5 million Swiss francs owed to [a limousine] company and her hotel. When the bill was brought to her attention, "she declared that the amount was too high" and asked diplomats to handle the negotiations over its payment..." "When reached by phone on Saturday, Louis Roulet, the administrator of the limousine service, confirmed the document's authenticity and said he remembered the incident well. The total bill was "far more" than 1.5 million Swiss francs, he said, adding that it was eventually paid in full. "We don't work with this family anymore, for the obvious reasons," Roulet said. Still, the Algerian-born Roulet was unfazed, saying these kinds of disputes were typical of the Arab customers he dealt with. "I find this totally normal," he said. [Associated Press, June 20, 2015]
How normal? A glossy report that appeared in Vanity Fair two months ago fleshes it out somewhat. See "The Saudi Princess and the Multi-Million Dollar Shopping Spree" [Vanity Fair, April 2015]. But the anxieties stemming from the covert workings of Saudi influence extend far beyond a propensity for skipping town ahead of unpaid suppliers.

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