Saudi dirty tricks exposed
But Riyadh will remain a key imperialist ally, predicts Yassamine Mather
Close allies: Barack Obama and King Abdullah
On June 19 2015, the third anniversary of Julian Assange seeking asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, Wikileaks posted around 60,000 files, out of a possible 500,000, in what was described as a long-term, steady hacking of Saudi government material.1
The group credited with infiltrating Saudi government computers is the Yemen Cyber Army, whose first success was in April, when it hacked the website of London based Al-Hayat daily, a paper owned by and associated with the Saudi government, “to support the Yemen revolution”. By late May the group was claiming on Press TV (an English-language station of Iran’s Islamic Republic) that it had “full control of over 3,000 computers of Saudi Arabia’s interior, defence and foreign ministries”.
There has been no independent verification of the authenticity of the documents released. However, there seems little doubt that they are genuine - they all carry the official green letterhead of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia or its ministry of foreign affairs, and they include a few from Saudi embassies worldwide. According to Arab veteran columnist Abdel Bari Atwan, it is very likely that former Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal was dismissed from his post in April because his ministry had been hacked.
This is a serious blow to the secretive rulers of the reactionary kingdom, who claimed immediately that the documents were fake - although at the same time they warned Saudi citizens not to forward or publish any of them: foreign ministry spokesperson Osama Naqli declared that Saudis who distributed the documents would be prosecuted.
However, there are no major surprises in the documents released. They range from the sublime (the Saudi royals don’t pay their bills when visiting European cities) to the ridiculous (there are acts of petty vengeance against Iranian diplomats passing through Riyadh airport, through “the application of strict inspection customs procedures on members of the Iranian diplomatic mission in the kingdom upon their final departure”).
But there is a more serious side. The documents reveal the Saudi obsession with Iran’s influence in the region and how this dominates the Riyadh’s regional foreign policy. According to the leaked papers, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy the country’s nuclear programme.
We learn that a royal decree of January 20 2010 instructed the Saudi foreign minister to remove the Iranian Arabic service, Al-Alam, from Arabsat, the main Riyadh communications satellite operator. In another cable, the foreign minister suggests that the provider use “technical means” to reduce Iranian broadcast strength.
The leaked documents also show that Saudi authorities are paymasters of a number of Iranians, ranging from ‘regime change’ opposition groups and individuals to former Iranian politicians associated with the reformist factions of the Islamic Republic. In a memo written by the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the author refers to “the frustration of the Iranian citizen and his strong desire for regime change”. According to another leaked document:
It is possible to use the internet and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and others to expose Iranian practices ... Members of the Iranian opposition abroad must be embraced and coordinated with, and encouraged to organise exhibitions featuring images of torture committed by the Iranian regime against its people and other peoples in the region.2
The Iranian press and media have concentrated on documents claiming the Saudi embassy in London paid the university postgraduate fees of the sons of Ata’ollah Mohajerani in Britain. Mohajerani was minister of culture and Islamic guidance under president Mohammad Khatami. He is married to Jamileh Kadivar, a leading reformist politician and former member of the Iranian majles (parliament).
Of course, the sums involved in the alleged Mohajerani bribe are totally insignificant if you compare them with the kind of corruption Iranian politicians of all factions (reformist, centrist and conservative) have been involved in. However, this has come at a bad time for the current Tehran government. In recent weeks the Iranian judiciary has been busy issuing arrest warrants for the allies of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on corruption charges. Hamid Baghaei, Iran’s vice-president during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, who was in charge of executive affairs, was arrested and accused of benefiting from embezzlements worth a billion dollars.
Baghaei was the second Ahmadinejad ally to be arrested. Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Ahmadinejad’s first vice-president from 2009 to 2013, was sentenced in January 2015 to five years in prison and fined $1.3 million on corruption charges.
Iran’s reformist newspapers have celebrated Baghaei’s arrest, mainly because it struck a blow against Ahmadinejad’s recent attempts to return to politics. These papers have used the corruption arrests to taunt Ahmadinejad for boasting in the past that his was “the most pure administration” in Iranian history. But in the last few days, conservative papers have been taking their revenge with headlines about the Mohajerani story. The conservative daily Kayhan claims the Wiki documents show Saudi officials entertaining politician Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of ex-president ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, to a plush meal.
Of course, the bulk of Saudi funding goes to “Iran regime change projects”in collaboration with US-sponsored initiatives involving Republican and Democratic politicians and organisations, and examples of lavish expenditure in support of the activities of exiled Iranian groups have long been evident. It is interesting to note that these groups/individuals see no contradiction between accepting funds from one reactionary religious dictatorship, Saudi Arabia, to expose the ‘human rights abuses’ of another, Iran’s Islamic Republic. One can only imagine the kind of ‘democracy’ they would introduce after any successful Saudi-supported regime change.
Wikileaks’ information about the rest of Saudi policy in the region shows a pattern of supporting Iran’s opponents in every country, irrespective of their religion - proving once more that in the current wars in the Middle East what we are witnessing is not a straightforward Sunni-Shia conflict, but reflect the ambitions of two regional powers competing to strengthen and consolidate their political influence in neighbouring countries.
Lebanese politicians do not come out of the revelations well. Christian and Druze politicians opposed to the pro-Iran Hezbollah have been the recipients of Saudi generosity. For example, Samir Geagea, a leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), which is a Christian political party and part of the March 14 Alliance (coalition named after the mass anti-Syrian rally on that date in 2005), asked for financial assistance from the Saudi government. He pleaded: “I’m broke. I’m ready to do what the kingdom demands.” The request is supported by LF representative Elie Abou Assi, who explains the “difficulty of the financial situation of the party, which to a certain extent has become unable to secure the salaries of employees”.
The leaked documents show that in exchange for this funding Geagea supported Saudi Arabia in a number of media interviews and spoke out against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. They reveal that Geagea has shown “his preparedness to do whatever the kingdom asks of him”.3
Saudi foreign policy is also geared towards ‘neutralisation’ and ‘containment’ of certain publications. In order to achieve this, Saudi money is spent purchasing hundreds or thousands of subscriptions to such publications in exchange for a positive spin. The leaked cables show the ‘subsidised’ publications are expected to become an “asset” in the service of Saudi propaganda. A document addressing renewal of the subscriptions of these publications, dated January 1 2010, gives details of Saudi contributions to around 30 publications in Damascus, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Kuwait, Amman and Nouakchott.
These are small sums, totalling less than $33,000. However, the fate of these publications is clearly determined by the continuation or ending of the Saudi ‘subscription’. According to the leaked documents, Saudi Arabia purchases ‘reverse shares’ in the media outlets, where the cash ‘dividends’ flow the opposite way - from the shareholder to the media outlet. In return Riyadh gets political dividends - an obedient Arab press. One document shows that the kingdom paid the main Lebanese TV station, MTV, $5 million - although the channel had asked for $20 million!
Then there is Boutros Harb, who has held a number of ministerial posts in Lebanon. He requested funding from Saudi Arabia in order to create a political party.
The Wikileaks documents also expose the nature of Saudi-Egyptian relations. Following the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Saudi leaders negotiated with the Muslim Brotherhood, one of their long-term allies. A leading member of MB had said the group would ensure that Mubarak would not go to prison in exchange for $10 billion, but the idea was dismissed by Saudi officials - a handwritten note commented that paying “ransom” for the former Egyptian president was “not a good idea” because the Brotherhood might not be able to prevent his imprisonment.
In Iraq, Saudi Arabia had no hesitation in supporting Shia politicians who opposed Nuri Kamil al-Maliki, the then Shi’ite prime minister. One document confirms that the kingdom issued 2,000 pilgrimage visas to Ayad Allawi, a member of the Iraq Interim Governing Council, in 2003. Allawi was given a free hand to distribute the visas, a lucrative commodity allowing travel to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimages. No doubt Allawi made full use of the 2,000 visas to buy friends and allies.
According to documents translated by the Indian Express website, Saudi officials planned the establishment of a Salafi centre in India in 2012. This was in response to a request from the secretariat general of the Muslim World League (Mecca) - it was proposed the institution would be called the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Centre for Salafi Studies in India. Similar centres exist in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Muslim World League is a Saudi-funded ‘charity’, which has been linked to the financing of terrorism.
The first round of Wikileaks, published in 2010, quoted CIA documents pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia for funding, or turning a blind eye to funds sent to, jihadist terrorist groups worldwide. According to a leaked cable from Hillary Clinton, dated December 30 2009, “It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.” This led to Clinton’s famous outburst, in which she claimed that Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
However, the leaks shed little light on the kingdom’s relations with al Qa’eda, al Nusra, Islamic State ... According to a former Central Intelligence Agency officer currently working at the Brookings Institution,
While considerable evidence of such programmes exists, they are handled by the kingdom’s intelligence services, and the foreign ministry is often not in the loop. That allows the Saudis to have plausible deniability and to liaison with other intelligence services aiding the rebels.