— The Erimtan Angle —

The Associated Press reports from Istanbul that “WikiLeaks is in the process of publishing more than 500,000 Saudi diplomatic documents to the Internet, the transparency website said Friday [, 19 June 2015], a move that echoes its famous release of U.S. State Department cables in 2010 . . . WikiLeaks said in a statement that it has already posted roughly 60,000 files. Most of them appear to be in Arabic. There was no immediate way to verify the authenticity of the documents, although WikiLeaks has a long track record of hosting large-scale leaks of government material. Many of the documents carried green letterhead marked ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ or ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs’. Some were marked ‘urgent’ or ‘classified’. At least one appeared to be from the Saudi Embassy in Washington. If genuine, the documents would offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the notoriously opaque kingdom. They might also shed light on Riyadh’s longstanding regional rivalry with Iran, its support for Syrian rebels and Egypt’s military-backed government, and its opposition to an emerging international agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program. One of the documents, dated to 2012, appears to highlight Saudi Arabia’s well-known skepticism about the Iranian nuclear talks. A message from the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran to the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh describes ‘flirting American messages’ being carried to Iran via an unnamed Turkish mediator. Another 2012 missive, 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”.[1]

Going down the nitty-gritty, the AP report continues that in an “Aug. 14, 2008 message marked ‘classified and very urgent’, the Foreign Ministry wrote to the Saudi Embassy in Washington to warn that dozens of students from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries had visited the Israeli Embassy in the U.S. capital as part of an international leadership program. ‘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. Another eye-catching item was a document addressed to the interior and justice ministers notifying them that a son of Osama bin Laden had obtained a certificate from the American Embassy in Riyadh ‘showing death of his father’. Many more of the dozens of documents examined by The Associated Press appeared to be the product of mundane administrative work, such as emails about setting up a website or operating an office fax machine. The AP was not immediately able to reach anyone whose phone numbers or email addresses were published in the various documents, but WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told AP he was confident that the material was genuine. It is not clear how WikiLeaks got the documents, although in its statement the website referred to a recent electronic attack on the Saudi Foreign Ministry by a group calling itself the Yemen Cyber Army. Hrafnsson declined to elaborate on the statement or say whether the hackers subsequently passed documents on to WikiLeaks”.

And right on cue, Reuters reports that “Saudi Arabia Saturday [, 20 June] urged its citizens not to distribute ‘documents that might be faked’ in an apparent response to WikiLeaks’ publication 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”.[2]  On the WikiLeaks website, on the other hand, this could be read on Saturday, 20 June: “The Saudi Cables. Over half a million cables and other documents from the Saudi Foreign Ministry.A total of 61195 published so far”.[3]  But then the WikiLeaks team also released this for the press: “Today, Friday 19th June at 1pm GMT, WikiLeaks began publishing The Saudi Cables: more than half a million cables and other documents from the Saudi Foreign Ministry that contain secret communications from various Saudi Embassies around the world. The publication includes ‘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 a large number of email communications between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and foreign entities. The Saudi Cables are being published in tranches of tens of thousands of documents at a time over the coming weeks. Today WikiLeaks is releasing around 70,000 documents from the trove as the first tranche. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks publisher, said: ‘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 neighbours and itself’. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a hereditary dictatorship bordering the Persian Gulf. Despite the Kingdom’s infamous human rights record, Saudi Arabia remains a top-tier ally of the United States and the United Kingdom in the Middle East, largely owing to its globally unrivalled oil reserves. The Kingdom frequently tops the list of oil-producing countries, which has given the Kingdom disproportionate influence in international affairs. Each year it pushes billions of petro-dollars into the pockets of UK banks and US arms companies. Last year it became the largest arms importer in the world, eclipsing China, India and the combined countries of Western Europe. The Kingdom has since the 1960s played a major role in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) and dominates the global Islamic charity market. For 40 years the Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was headed by one man: Saud al Faisal bin Abdulaziz, a member of the Saudi royal family, and the world’s longest-serving foreign minister. The end of Saud al Faisal’s tenure, which began in 1975, coincided with the royal succession upon the death of King Abdullah in January 2015. Saud al Faisal’s tenure over the Ministry covered its handling of key events and issues in the foreign relations of Saudi Arabia, from the fall of the Shah and the second Oil Crisis to the September 11 attacks and its ongoing proxy war against Iran. The Saudi Cables provide key insights into the Kingdom’s operations and how it has managed its alliances and consolidated its position as a regional Middle East superpower, including through bribing and co-opting key individuals and institutions. The cables also illustrate the highly centralised bureaucratic structure of the Kingdom, where even the most minute issues are addressed by the most senior officials. Since late March 2015 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been involved in a war in neighbouring Yemen. The Saudi Foreign Ministry in May 2015 admitted to a breach of its computer networks. Responsibility for the breach was attributed to a group calling itself the Yemeni Cyber Army. The group subsequently released a number of valuable “sample” document sets from the breach on file-sharing sites, which then fell under censorship attacks. The full WikiLeaks trove comprises thousands of times the number of documents and includes hundreds of thousands of pages of scanned images of Arabic text. In a major journalistic research effort, WikiLeaks has extracted the text from these images and placed them into our searchable database. The trove also includes tens of thousands of text files and spreadsheets as well as email messages, which have been made searchable through the WikiLeaks search engine. By coincidence, the Saudi Cables release also marks two other events. Today marks three years since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seeking asylum from US persecution, having been held for almost five years without charge in the United Kingdom. Also today Google revealed that it had been forced to hand over more data to the US government in order to assist the prosecution of WikiLeaks staff under US espionage charges arising from our publication of US diplomatic cables”.[4]

The WikiLeaks team continues its attack on Saudi Arabia as follows: “On Monday [, 15 June 2015}, Saudi Arabia celebrated the beheading of its 100th prisoner this year. The story was nowhere to be seen on Arab media despite the story’s circulation on wire services. Even international media [were] relatively mute about this milestone compared to what it might have been if it had concerned a different country. How does a story like this go unnoticed? Today’s release of the WikiLeaks ‘Saudi Cables’ from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs show how it’s done. The oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its ruling family take a systematic approach to maintaining the country’s positive image on the international stage. Most world governments engage in PR campaigns to fend off criticism and build relations in influential places. Saudi Arabia controls its image by monitoring media and buying loyalties from Australia to Canada and everywhere in between. Documents reveal the 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 co-opting Arab media takes two forms, corresponding to the ‘carrot and stick’ approach, referred to in the documents as ‘neutralisation’ and ‘containment’. The approach is customised depending on the market and the media in question . . . The initial reaction to any negative coverage in the regional media is to ‘neutralise’ it. The term is used frequently in the cables and it pertains to individual journalists and media institutions whose silence and co-operation has been bought. ‘Neutralised’ journalists and media institutions are not expected to praise and defend the Kingdom, only to refrain from publishing news that reflects negatively on the Kingdom, or any criticism of its policies. The ‘containment’ approach is used when a more active propaganda effort is required. Journalists and media institutions relied upon for ‘containment’ are expected not only to sing the Kingdom’s praises, but to lead attacks on any party that dares to air criticisms of the powerful Gulf state. One of the ways ‘neutralisation’ and ‘containment’ are ensured is by purchasing hundreds or thousands of subscriptions in targeted publications. These publications are then expected to return the favour by becoming an ‘asset’ in the Kingdom’s propaganda strategy. A document listing the subscriptions that needed renewal by 1 January 2010 details a series of contributory sums meant for two dozen publications in Damascus, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Kuwait, Amman and Nouakchott. The sums range from $500 to 9,750 Kuwaiti Dinars ($33,000). The Kingdom effectively buys reverse ‘shares’ in the media outlets, where the cash ‘dividends’ flow the opposite way, from the shareholder to the media outlet. In return Saudi Arabia gets political ‘dividends’ – an obliging press. An example of these co-optive practices in action can be seen in an exchange between the Saudi Foreign Ministry and its Embassy in Cairo. On 24 November 2011 Egypt’s Arabic-language broadcast station ONTV hosted the Saudi opposition figure Saad al-Faqih, which prompted the Foreign Ministry to task the embassy with inquiring into the channel. The Ministry asked the embassy to find out how ‘to co-opt it or else we must consider it standing in the line opposed to the Kingdom’s policies’. The document reports that the billionaire owner of the station, Naguib Sawiris, did not want to be ‘opposed to the Kingdom’s policies’ and that he scolded the channel director, asking him ‘never to host al-Faqih again’. He also asked the Ambassador if he’d like to be ‘a guest on the show’. The Saudi Cables are rife with similar examples, some detailing the figures and the methods of payment. These range from small but vital sums of around $2000/year to developing country media outlets – a figure the Guinean News Agency ‘urgently needs’ as ‘it would solve many problems that the agency is facing’ – to millions of dollars, as in the case of Lebanese right-wing television station MTV . . . The ‘neutralisation’ and ‘containment’ approaches are not the only techniques the Saudi Ministry is willing to employ. In cases where ‘containment’ fails to produce the desired effect, the Kingdom moves on to confrontation. In one example, the Foreign Minister was following a Royal Decree dated 20 January 2010 to remove Iran’s new Arabic-language news network, Al-Alam, from the main Riyadh-based regional communications satellite operator, Arabsat. After the plan failed, Saud Al Faisal sought to ‘weaken its broadcast signal’. The documents show concerns within the Saudi administration over the social upheavals of 2011, which became known in the international media as the ‘Arab Spring’. The cables note with concern that after the fall of Mubarak, coverage of the upheavals in Egyptian media was ‘being driven by public opinion instead of driving public opinion’. The Ministry resolved ‘to give financial support to influential media institutions in Tunisia’, the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring’. The cables reveal that the government employs a different approach for its own domestic media. There, a wave of the Royal hand is all that is required to adjust the output of state-controlled media. A complaint from former Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi citizen Saad Hariri concerning articles critical of him in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat newspapers prompted a directive to ‘stop these type of articles’ from the Foreign Ministry. This is a general overview of the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s strategy in dealing with the media. WikiLeaks’ Saudi Cables contain numerous other examples that form an indictment of both the Kingdom and the state of the media globally”.[5]

[1] “WikiLeaks says it’s leaking over 500,000 Saudi documents” AP (20 June 2015). http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/wikileaks-publishes-more-than-60-000-leaked-cables-from-saudi-arabia/article1-1360724.aspx.

[2] “Saudi Arabia warns citizens against sharing ‘faked’ documents after Wikileaks release” Reuters (20 June 2015). https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Jun-20/303059-saudi-arabia-warns-citizens-against-sharing-faked-documents-after-wikileaks-release.ashx.

[3] “The Saudi Cables” WikiLeaks. https://wikileaks.org/saudi-cables/.

[4] “WikiLeaks publishes the Saudi Cables” WikiLeaks. https://wikileaks.org/saudi-cables/press.

[5] ” Buying Silence: How the Saudi Foreign Ministry controls Arab media” WikiLeaks. https://wikileaks.org/saudi-cables/buying-silence.

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