Secret Australia-Saudi deal on intelligence
Arranging an interview with a Saudi prince can be tricky, particularly when the prince is the chief of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s feared secret police.
Secret Saudi foreign ministry documents released by WikiLeaks this week show that Australia’s former ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Neil Hawkins, had to wait more than five months to receive a response to a request for a meeting with His Royal Highness Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, then head of intelligence and secretary-general of the kingdom’s National Security Council.
Hawkins first requested a meeting in early August 2012.
Six weeks earlier, then Labor foreign minister Bob Carr had breezed through the Saudi capital. Carr’s published diary records that he donned “my Sydney tailor’s best suit” and purchased a new Bulgari tie to meet the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Carr found his counterpart, whose reign as the world’s longest-serving foreign minister ended this year, “somewhat frail, and slow in speech, walking with a stick”, but noted “his brown eyes flashed and his pronouncements cut through”. Over lunch the conversation covered Iran; Sunni Saudi Arabia’s fears of spreading Shia Islamic influence; the likelihood of a coup in Egypt following a victory in the presidential elections of the Muslim Brotherhood, something the prince implied would be “catastrophic”; and
the need for a settlement between Israel and Palestine.
There was another highly sensitive item on the agenda, however, that Ambassador Hawkins later struggled to advance without the door-opening presence of a visiting foreign minister – namely strengthening intelligence co-operation between Australia and Saudi Arabia. A secret “document of intent” on counterterrorism co-operation had been signed by the two countries in 2011, but progress on practical co-operation had been slow despite burgeoning bilateral trade and growing people-to-people ties. More than 10,000 Saudi students were studying at Australian universities and other educational institutions and thousands of Australian Muslims undertake the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca each year.
The leaked Saudi foreign ministry documents show there was no rush to respond to the Australian embassy’s first letter seeking a meeting between Hawkins and Prince Bandar, sent on August 1, 2012. Nor was there any response to a second letter, sent by the embassy two months later. Eventually the embassy dispatched a third letter, on January 16, 2013, reiterating Hawkins’ request for a discussion about “co-operation between the two countries at the intelligence level”.
The Saudi foreign ministry belatedly decided to recommend that the powerful Ministry of Interior facilitate a meeting. Some time later, it’s not clear precisely when, there was a breakthrough and arrangements were made for Australia’s ambassador for counterterrorism, Bill Fisher, to visit Saudi Arabia for high-level discussions
in April 2013.
The details of Australia’s subsequent counterterrorism co-operation with Saudi Arabia have been kept largely secret. This week, however, perhaps prompted by the deluge of leaked Saudi foreign ministry documents, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was a little more forthcoming than usual, with a spokesperson saying that bilateral collaboration “extends to discussions and training exchanges between relevant officials”. In the current context of alarm about Islamic State (or Daesh), there were “new dimensions of co-operation opening up in relation to anti-Daesh efforts”. Among this co-operation was Saudi Arabia’s Financial Intelligence Unit, which seeks to combat money laundering and terrorist financing in the kingdom and works closely with foreign counterparts, including Australia’s anti-money laundering agency, AUSTRAC. To this end, an AUSTRAC official attended a working group on countering Islamic State financing in Jeddah last month.
The Australian Federal Police liaison post in United Arab Emirates (UAE) covers co-operation with Saudi Arabia. It is also understood that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service post in the UAE – publicly revealed in Carr’s diary – engages in liaison with the Saudi external intelligence service, the Ri’āsat Al-Istikhbārāt Al-’Āmah, or General Intelligence Directorate. Leaked US embassy cables previously published by WikiLeaks suggest that the General Intelligence Directorate, described as the most “forward-leaning” of Saudi Arabia’s security agencies, generally acts as an intermediary and facilitates co-operation with the more insular and notoriously brutal secret police, the Mabahith or General Investigation Directorate of the Ministry of Interior. Leaked Saudi foreign ministry documents briefly refer to the need for the Ministry of Interior to support co-operation between the General Intelligence Directorate and “Australian intelligence officials”.
Asked this week what safeguards are in place to ensure that Australian–Saudi Arabian counterterrorism co-operation is consistent with Australia’s human rights policies, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade offered general reassurance that counterterrorism co-operation with any partner country was “examined for consistency with Australia’s human rights standards and policies in its scoping phase”.
But the leaked Saudi diplomatic papers suggest human rights issues receive scant attention in the bilateral relationship, at least as far as the Saudis are concerned. One exception was Saudi Arabia’s offer of support for the election of Australian legal academic Professor James Crawford to be a judge of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in exchange for Australian support for the kingdom to be elected to serve on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Details of any subsequent Australian–Saudi deal are obscure. However, Professor Crawford was elected to the ICJ in November 2014. Saudi Arabia also won election to the Human Rights Council and is currently lobbying to serve as chair in 2016, a move that has been described by Human Rights Watch as potentially the “final nail in the coffin for the credibility” of the UN’s peak human rights body.
The leaked Saudi cables do show that trade, consular support for Saudi students in Australia, and assistance to Australian Muslims undertaking the hajj are day-to-day preoccupations for the kingdom’s well-staffed embassy in Canberra. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade diplomatic list shows that, aside from Ambassador Nabil Mohammed A. Al Saleh, there are 27 Saudi diplomats posted to our national capital, including one member of the Saudi royal family, His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki bin Badr bin Saud bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, serving in the humble role of a diplomatic attaché.
More significantly, the leaked documents provide evidence that the Saudi embassy is deeply involved in the religious life and politics of Australia’s Islamic communities, with the particular goal of spreading and strengthening their puritanical Wahhabist branch of Sunni Islam. Indeed, Saudi foreign ministry instructions leave little doubt that engagement in Islamic religious affairs and the wider politics of Australia’s Islamic communities are primary tasks for the embassy. The documents show the Sunni kingdom’s strong concern about efforts by Shiite Islamic leaders to engage with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils and the kingdom’s funding of visits to Australia by Sunni Islamic clerics to counter Shia influence.
Also detailed are efforts to influence the Arab language press in Australia, with the leaked documents including instructions from the Saudi government to its embassy relating to the payment of subsidies, disguised as “subscriptions”, from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information to prominent Arabic newspapers in Australia, with reference made to payments totalling $40,000 between four media organisations. Newspapers identified in correspondence referring to payments in 2007 include the influential El Telegraph and The Middle East Times. Material support for community leaders and individuals judged to be supportive of Saudi interests, including at least one New South Wales Labor councillor, also appears to be significant, although it is not possible to make definitive judgements owing to the incomplete nature of the leaked Saudi archive.
The Saudi embassy is further revealed to pay close attention to the activities of Saudi university students studying in Australia, with reports sent to the Mabahith, which also appears to make recommendations in relation to the Saudi government’s large-scale funding of building mosques and supporting Islamic community activities in Australia. Saudi government activity in Australia has extended to large investments in the higher education sector, including through the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, spanning the University of Melbourne, Griffith University and the University of Western Sydney.
It is a very rare thing for the contemporary archives of a foreign embassy or diplomatic service operating in Australia to be made public. It has only happened twice – once in the case of the Soviet embassy following the 1954 defection of Vladimir Petrov and on the second occasion as a consequence of WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of US embassy cables. Both cases showed that foreign governments had deep interests in the domestic affairs of this country, keenly interested to gather intelligence and exert influence. WikiLeaks’ “Saudi cables” show that what the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation terms “foreign interference” is certainly not confined to the activities of great powers.
In the course of current debates about Islamic State terrorism, radicalisation and the need for heightened security measures, there should perhaps be some greater attention to who Australia is dealing with overseas and the nature and extent of their activities in this country. But curiously there’s no rush to do that from either side of Australian politics.
The embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not respond to a request for comment in relation to issues raised in this article.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Exclusive: Secret Australia-Saudi deal on intel". Subscribe here.