WikiLeaks posts Saudi cables

WikiLeaks posts Saudi cables

A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds banners outside the embassy of Ecuador in London, where Assange has claimed asylum. Friday was the third anniversary of Assange's stay at the embassy. (AFP Photo)
A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds banners outside the embassy of Ecuador in London, where Assange has claimed asylum. Friday was the third anniversary of Assange's stay at the embassy. (AFP Photo)

ISTANBUL — WikiLeaks is in the process of putting more than 500,000 Saudi diplomatic documents online, in a move that echoes its infamous release of US State Department cables in 2010.

WikiLeaks said in a statement that it had already posted roughly 60,000 files. Most are in Arabic and they are now being examined by The Associated Press.

There was no immediate way to verify the authenticity of the documents, although the transparency-promotion organisation has a long track record of hosting large-scale leaks of government material.

The AP was able to partially verify the authenticity of a handful of documents by calling the telephone numbers included in many of them.

While many documents dealt with fairly dry diplomatic content, at least one — involving US$1.65 million in unpaid limousine bills — offered some insights into the outsized spending habits of the Saudi royal family.

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told The AP he was confident that the material was genuine.

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 programme.

One of the documents, dated 2012, appears to highlight Saudi Arabia's well-known scepticism 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.

Some of the concerns appear specific to Saudi Arabia.

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 US capital 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.

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 (the) death of his father".

Many more of the dozens of documents examined by The Associated Press appeared to relate to mundane administrative work, such as e-mails about setting up a website or operating an office fax machine.

Amid a small mountain of administrative documents, the AP found a 2009 invoice for an unpaid limousine bill racked up by Princess Maha Al Ibrahim, which Saudi media identify as the wife of senior Saudi royal Abdul-Rahman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The invoice, from Geneva-based Golden Limousine Services and addressed to the Saudi mission there, says the princess skipped town after failing to paying a first installment of 1.5 million Swiss francs owed to the 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.

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.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately return repeated messages seeking comment.

In its statement, WikiLeaks said the release coincided with the three-year anniversary of its founder, Julian Assange, seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Assange took refuge in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning about alleged sex crimes. Assange has denied any wrongdoing.

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