The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How leaked Saudi documents might really matter

Royal guards stand on duty in front of portraits of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, right, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, center, and Muqrin bin Abdulaziz during a culture festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in February 2014. (Fayez Nureldine/Pool Photo via AP)

On Friday, WikiLeaks and the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar released just over 60,000 out of a half-million leaked diplomatic cables from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The immediate response to the announcement followed a predictable script. First, elites sympathetic to Saudi Arabia rushed to minimize the importance of the cables, declaring (remarkably quickly, given the number of documents to be perused) that there was nothing new or interesting to be found in the release. Then, a legion of online Arabs dug into the archive and posted titillating nuggets online, while media outlets began reporting the major finds. Now, those documents are circulating widely through social media, dominating public discourse and could continue to do so for quite some time, with more than 400,000 more documents slated for release over the course of the month of Ramadan.

It’s easy to be jaded by the routinized script of such leaks, by the pugnacious politics surrounding WikiLeaks itself, by the limited impact of previous leaks, or by the toxic public discourse surrounding the Middle East’s sectarian and partisan conflicts. What’s more, the leaks can have only a limited direct political effect in the current highly polarized and collectively repressive regional environment. Don’t expect the cables to cause uprisings in Riyadh or the expulsion of Saudi diplomats from Arab capitals anytime soon. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of these leaks. They are likely to matter more than many of the previous such leaks because of how they resonate with two of the most potent issues in today’s Middle East: the regional proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran; and fierce Arab regime efforts to control an inexorably expanding Arab public sphere and erase the gains of the 2010-2011 uprisings.

The Saudi government seems to have acknowledged the authenticity of the documents in general but warns (probably correctly) that some fake documents may be included among the authentic ones. Assessing them isn’t made any easier by the way the documents have been released, as single pages of multi-page documents with much important contextual information missing. Information found in these documents needs to be kept in perspective: a Saudi diplomatic cable about, say, Qatari activism in Yemen could be accurate, it could be a diplomat’s speculation or it could be accurately reporting information from an intelligence source that is itself wrong. Poor reporting in an official document might be revealing about the perceptions of officials, but it could still be poor analysis or an unreliable guide to policy.

The leaks are manifestly a form of political warfare, whether by Yemeni Houthis, Iran or Saudi dissidents. There is little effort being made to hide the gleeful exposure of Saudi Arabia within a “public interest” discourse. Nor is there much doubt that Saudis would do the same were they to prove fortunate enough to gain access to Iranian or Qatari computer systems. But acknowledging the politics of the leaks is no reason to wave off their significance. Arabs across the region care about the Saudi documents (like they did the 2010 release of American documents) precisely because Riyadh’s highly interventionist regional policies have involved it deeply in their internal politics. Yemenis, Libyans, Syrians and Egyptians have a stake in Saudi foreign policy documents, because they so profoundly affect their own countries.

It’s true that nothing thus far has been especially surprising, as those dismissive of the leak point out. The documents getting the most play in the Arab arena have been those showing individual politicians and journalists seeking Saudi financial support, but the politicians and media in question were generally already known to be sympathetic to Saudi Arabia. Particular attention has been paid to one cable suggesting Qatari meddling in Yemen and to another discussing communications between Saudi Arabia and former Muslim Brotherhood heavyweight Khairat el-Shater about releasing former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in exchange for financial support. While a lot of people are chatting about the new details, few will even feign surprise at the revelations that the Saudis try to control the Arab media, lavish money on friendly politicians, don’t pay parking tickets, or don’t care for Iran.

But the absence of “smoking gun” documents is not the point. As Henry Farrell and Marty Finnemore argued a few years ago with regard to the leak of the U.S. State Department cables, the most important consequence was that “they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why.” It’s one thing for everyone in the region to “know” about Saudi efforts to control the media, but it’s something else to read the details in an official document — and to know that everyone else is reading them, too.

This dynamic has always been critically important in the Arab world, where autocratic regimes have exerted especially tight control over the media and public discourse. When the American cables were leaked in 2010, I suggested that the greatest impact would be in the Arab world, where “rulers go to great lengths to keep such things secret” and enforcing public hypocrisy is a key dimension of autocratic governance. Those WikiLeaks revelations fit within the broader context of online Arab activism aimed at breaking the state monopoly of information, exposing official brutality and corruption, and creating alternative media platforms and social networks. As the Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia (@ifikra) put it, “It wasn’t the information about corruption and cronyism. Tunisians didn’t need Tunileaks to tell them their country was corrupt. Tunisians had been gossiping and joking about the corruption for years. What was different was the psychological effect of an establishment confronted so publicly with its ugly own image. It was that the government knew that all people knew, inside and outside the country, how corrupt and authoritarian it was.”

The 2010 WikiLeaks release came during the adolescence of the online Arab public sphere, with an influential but relatively small number of activists on hand to engage with the leaks. Today’s online Arab public is far more developed, with a much greater proportion of Arab citizens online and active on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The Saudi leaks are almost custom-made for the online legion of politicized Arabs to mine, share and discuss, making it almost impossible for states to control the information flow. Satellite television and state-controlled domestic media outlets can ignore the documents, but that will not stop their circulation among millions of regular Internet users. The effect of government efforts to prevent Saudi citizens from circulating the documents will be a useful test case of the current balance of power between state and online society.

This is, however, no utopian suggestion that the information will flow freely through an emancipated public sphere. Quite the contrary: The new information is flowing through the highly polarized, partisan networks that now dominate both the online Arab public and mass media. Pro-Saudi and anti-Saudi online networks and media highlight entirely different documents. with partisans in each cluster selectively focusing on those documents and arguments that support their cause while playing down  others. The politics of the Saudi leaks is likely to reinforce rather than challenge the region’s toxic, repressive, fearful and unstable political environment.