Cables Released by WikiLeaks Reveal Saudis’ Checkbook Diplomacy – Hwaida Saad/The New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — It seems that everyone wants something from Saudi Arabia.
Before becoming the president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi wanted visas to take his family on a religious pilgrimage. A Lebanese politician begged for cash to pay his bodyguards. Even the state news agency of Guinea, in West Africa, asked for $2,000 “to solve many of the problems the agency is facing.”
They all had good reason to ask, as the kingdom has long wielded its oil wealth and religious influence to try to shape regional events and support figures sympathetic to its worldview.
These and other revelations appear in a trove of documents said to have come from inside the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and released on Friday by the antiprivacy group WikiLeaks.
While the documents appear to contain no shocking revelations about Saudi Arabia, say, eavesdropping on the United States or shipping bags of cash to militant groups, they contain enough detail to shed light on the diplomacy of a deeply private country and to embarrass Saudi officials and those who lobby them for financial aid. And they allow the curious to get a glimpse of the often complex interactions between a kingdom seen by many as the rich uncle of Middle East and its clients, from Africa to Australia.
In a statement carried by the Saudi state news agency on Saturday, a foreign ministry spokesman, Osama Nugali, acknowledged that the documents were related to a recent electronic attack on the ministry.
He warned Saudis not to “help the enemies of the homeland” by sharing the documents, adding that many were “clearly fabricated.” Those who distribute the documents will be punished under the country’s cybercrimes law, he said.
Mr. Nugali also struck a defiant tone, saying the documents were essentially in line with the “state’s transparent policies” and its public statements on “numerous regional and international issues.”
More than 60,000 documents have been released so far, with WikiLeaks promising more to come. They include identification cards, visa requests and summaries of news media coverage of the kingdom. The most informative are diplomatic cables from Saudi embassies around the world to the foreign ministry, many of which are then passed along to the office of the king for final decisions.
Many of the cables are incomplete, making it hard to determine their date and context, and very few indicate which requests were approved by the king and ultimately carried out. Most documents focus on a turbulent period in the Middle East, beginning after the popular uprisings that toppled Arab leaders in 2011 and continuing through early this year.
Clear in many of the documents are efforts by Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, to combat the influence of Shiite Iran, its regional rival, as well as Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party.
Cables about Iraq suggest efforts to support politicians who opposed Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, then the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, who was close to Iran. One said the kingdom had given 2,000 pilgrimage visas to Mr. Maliki’s chief rival, Ayad Allawi, to distribute as he saw fit.
Another cable from the Saudi Embassy in Beirut relayed a request by a Christian politician, Samir Geagea, for cash to relieve his party’s financial problems. The cable noted that Mr. Geagea had stood up for the kingdom in news media interviews, opposed the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and had shown “his preparedness to do whatever the kingdom asks of him.”
A spokesman for Mr. Geagea did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
“Are there just more Lebanese begging Saudis for money or does my timeline skew toward Lebanon?” wrote one Twitter user, Laleh Khalili, noting the frequency of such requests from Beirut.
Other cables show Saudi Arabia working to maintain its regional influence. One accused Qatar, another Persian Gulf state known for oil wealth and cash-based diplomacy, of stirring up trouble in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor, by backing a rich politician to the tune of $250 million.
And a few cables implied that Saudi leaders had negotiated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Saudi ally. One document said a leader in the Brotherhood had said the group could ensure that Mr. Mubarak would not go to prison in exchange for $10 million.
But a handwritten note on the document said paying “ransom” for Mr. Mubarak was “not a good idea” because the Brotherhood could not prevent his incarceration.
The documents also indicate concerted Saudi efforts to shape news media coverage, both inside and outside the kingdom.
One cable suggested that the government pressure an Arab satellite provider to take an Iranian television station off the air. In another cable, the foreign minister suggests that the provider use “technical means to lessen the Iranian broadcast strength.”
Other documents suggest intervention at the highest levels to shape domestic media coverage in a way that suits the rulers.
In an early 2012 cable marked “top secret and urgent,” King Abdullah told top ministers about new talks between the kingdom and Russia over the crisis in Syria and asked them to “direct the media not to expose Russian personalities and to avoid offending them so as not to harm the kingdom’s interests.”
Missing from the documents is any evidence of direct Saudi support for militant groups in Syria or elsewhere.
Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer now at the Brookings Institution, said that while considerable evidence of such programs 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,” he said.
Some found the documents underwhelming, noting that similar activities are carried out by many countries, including the United States.
“There is not really something shocking that compromises Saudi security,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the United Arab Emirates, who had read about 100 cables.
One surprise in the documents, he said, is that the former Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had to seek the permission of the king before proceeding with even minor matters.
“It seems that the king is the king in Saudi Arabia, no matter how princely you are,” Dr. Abdulla said.
Other surprising finds showed up in the WikiLeaks’ net.
The Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, known for shocking conservative Muslims with her sexy music videos, received a visa and visited a Saudi prince inside the kingdom despite instructions that all visas for artists and singers be preapproved by the Interior Ministry, according to the documents.
The foreign ministry branch in Mecca responded that Ms. Ajram had received the visa to travel with her husband and had come on a personal visit, not in her capacity as an artist.
Also in the cache was an email to a foreign ministry official from a technology company called StarLink, whose website says it is a “trusted security adviser.”
Reached by phone, the company’s business development manager, Mahmoud Odeh, confirmed that StarLink had provided computer security services to the Saudi government.
When asked what he thought of the leaks, Mr. Odeh hung up.