The Snowden papers and the Saudis

The Carlyle Group, one of America’s largest conglomerates closely associated with the Reagan and Bush administrations, was holding its annual investor conference at the Ritz Carlton in New York on September 10. 2001. Former President George H W Bush and Saudi notable Shafig bin Laden, a brother of Osama bin Laden and a shareholder in Carlyle, also attended. Of course neither knew that a catastrophe organised by Osama was about to hit America the next day.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden participates via video in a parliamentary hearing on June 24. There is also considerable interest in the latest Wikileaks disclosures of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic files that have been published and a million more will follow. Pic/AFP
Whistleblower Edward Snowden participates via video in a parliamentary hearing on June 24. There is also considerable interest in the latest Wikileaks disclosures of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic files that have been published and a million more will follow. Pic/AFP

Two days after the disaster, when all airports in America were closed and all aircraft grounded, just one aircraft took off for Saudi Arabia. The passengers were the Saudi princes, potentates and a smattering of notables from the bin Laden family holidaying in America. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy for which George W Bush had publicly accused Al Qaeda, there was some noblesse oblige in rescuing the Saudi Royals. The escape had been organised by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s long serving Ambassador in the US and quite the éminence grise of successive Saudi monarchs.

Even earlier, Salem, the head of the bin Laden group and family business, had invested in George Bush’s first start-up company Arbusto Energy Inc. There is a tangled web of intricate financial dealings involving Texan oilmen and Saudi millionaires, including Khaled bin Mahfouz (whose sister was one of Osama’s wives), front companies and the pirate bank called BCCI that was used by the CIA to channel funds for the Afghan jihad. Nothing exhibits the extent and depth than the US and Saudi Arabia bond in existence since 1945.

There is considerable interest in the latest Wikileaks disclosures of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic files that have been published and a million more will follow. These are expected to include reports from the Saudi state bodies, and email communication between the foreign office and other countries. It is still early days as experts, analysts and linguists pore over these documents. Disclosures that Saudis want to undermine Iran and dislike Israel or the extravagant lifestyles of Saudi royals, are no surprises, but the highly secretive regime must be having anxious moments about what would finally emerge.

Media control by the Saudis has been an old practice and the latest disclosures will only mean heightened efforts at “neutralising” and “containing” journalists and media houses in the Arab world and even elsewhere. It is largely a market-based cheque book arrangement to buy silence or approval. Whenever containment fails, the regime moves to “confrontation” where, for instance, a particularly recalcitrant foreign agency’s communication facilities can be tweaked. Most of the reports so far suggest Saudi concern is with the region, like the discussion about paying US $ 10 billion to the Morsi government in 2011 to release Hosni Mubarak.

But of far greater interest in India would be the US-Saudi relationship that has grown stronger with time and circumstance. The latest US-Iran negotiations may have dampened Saudi fervour but that is expected to be restored eventually. Revelations about Saudi’s relationship with the US and with several European leaders and countries would be confirming and embellishing what is mostly known. Also of interest globally, and especially in India, would be the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear links and their military arrangements.

The West has other worries apart from the possible embarrassment that the Saudi cables might cause. Edward Snowden had downloaded 1.7 million secret files from American and British security agencies and had leaked details about massive surveillance of phone and Internet communications. The British and the Americans have had to pull back live operations in Russia and China as it is now feared that these countries have been able to decipher the messages. Governments would worry about possible embarrassments and discomfiture in international and bilateral relations for some, once many of the details are known. Strenuous efforts have probably begun to keep this and much else from the Snowden files under wraps.

Meanwhile, not related to this but more to crony capitalism, was the annual, highly secretive and exclusive Bilderberg Conference held last month in Tirol, Austria. Attended by Americans and European corporate and political leaders, the discussions were on several global issues but China and India were not listed. Nor were they invited to the august table, presumably to keep discussions about them within the cosy caucus. Major think tanks like Carnegie, American Enterprise, Council on Foreign Relations and Hudson were represented. Google, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Henry Kissinger were some of the other big guns that were slated to participate.

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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