Summary: The day-to-day business in most Arab embassies and consulates is PR, diplomacy and serving regime members but they are also busy with surveillance and, at times, engage in other far more sinister activities.
Like diplomatic missions of all countries, Arab embassies in the West play many different roles, official and otherwise. Their most important public function is as a public relations base to lobby western governments, institutions and individuals. Endowed with vast budgets, the embassies run lavish PR campaigns and produce glitzy publications and events. They are busy, too, collecting comments and monitoring criticism. Allegations can be addressed in regime media and if necessary, embassies will not hesitate to take legal action.
Besides PR, Arab missions are kept busy looking after the business and personal interests of high-ranking regime members. Typically this means managing their private offices, facilitating big purchases, and fending off personal allegations and complaints. From time to time diplomats may be called on for some extracurricular activity: finding a good doctor, an estate agent or even call girls. Sometimes they are asked to help forcibly repatriate a prince who has gone off the rails on hard drugs. On other occasions they may be asked to lie that a regime member has diplomatic immunity in order to try and get them off serious criminal charges.
The Saudi embassy in Paris spent a considerable amount of time fending off irate hoteliers and casino owners complaining about Prince Saud bin Saif Al Nasr’s unpaid bills. Then, after publicly supporting a call for a coup against King Salman, the ungrateful prince was kidnapped in 2015 and is now believed to be held in a Saudi prison.
Embassies and consulates can play an even darker role, the most notorious example of which was the murder, dismemberment and apparent incineration of journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.
“The fact that the killing took place in a consulate, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations (VCDCR), is central to the analysis of the facts and to any assessment of responsibilities” wrote Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur.
Though grisly, the Khashoggi case was hardly the first or only example of an Arab diplomatic mission being involved in a serious crime. In January the New York Times magazine published new details of the Saudi embassy’s role in the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. In 2003 Saudi diplomat Ali al-Shamarani, who was described as an intelligence officer in court, bribed PC Ghazi Kassim to obtain confidential information from police computers about people with Middle Eastern connections living in the UK. The same year the Saudi Embassy in Switzerland, along with the General Intelligence Directorate, Interior Ministry, Saudia Airlines, and a gang of foreign mercenaries, played a key role in the extraordinary rendition of Prince Sultan bin Turki from Geneva. Afterwards the Saudis themselves even designated a Saudi lawyer to investigate the role of the embassy in the kidnap, but no report was ever produced. When Prince Sultan bin Turki was kidnapped for a second time in 2016, the flight that took him had been arranged through the Saudi consulate in Paris, along with the handling of all the luggage and passports.
In June 2015 Wikileaks released the Saudi Cables, tens of thousands of confidential and top secret Saudi government documents highlighting the extent to which Saudi embassies around the world devote resources to hunting down the opposition abroad.
At the centre of this programme lies a massive surveillance operation. Arab embassies and consulates use networks of informers and spies, as well as signals intelligence, to try and monitor the entire diaspora with a special focus on postgraduate students and Islamist organisations. Arab missions also routinely video anti-regime demonstrations in the West and using facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology provided by allies like Israel, USA, UK, and UAE they identify opponents to target at a later date.
Former FBI agent Frank Montoya, who served as the director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive from 2012 to 2014, said surveillance of Saudi students in the US has been going on for years, although the programme dramatically expanded under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In July 2019 Immigration Minister Nabila Makram caused outrage when she made a throat-slitting gesture while speaking about expatriate Egyptians criticising the country. “Anyone who says anything about our country, what happens to them?” she asked during a private party in Toronto. “We cut,” she said, raising her hand to her throat.
On 9 July it was reported that Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency had identified an employee at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s press office who was suspected of spying for Egypt’s intelligence service.
The agency noted that enlisted spies purposely seek out fellow Egyptian nationals and that Egyptian secret service agents in Germany collect information on groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Christian community. ”There are indications that Egyptian services are trying to recruit Egyptians living in Germany for intelligence purposes through their visits to Egyptian diplomatic missions in Germany and their trips to Egypt,” the BfV said.
Once an opponent has been identified embassies often also play a key role in the next step, silencing them. The easiest way to do this is by making the perceived opponent return home. Embassies help with this process by cutting off funding or refusing to issue or renew important documents on the pretext that the applicant must apply in their home country.
Activists who refuse to travel home or visit an embassy, like Montreal-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, can still be targeted in other ways. The Egyptian government is currently attempting to extradite the whistleblower Mohamed Ali from Spain “in retaliation” for revealing financial and political corruption. Another common method is persecuting relatives in lieu. Examples are plentiful but one case that made international headlines recently was that of Mohamed Soltan whose family in Egypt had their homes raided last month after he filed a lawsuit in Washington D.C. against Egypt’s ex-Prime Minister Hazem Abdel Aziz El Beblawi over torture allegations.
“The security raids at the homes of [Soltan’s] relatives in Egypt follows a clear pattern of targeting relatives of dissidents abroad,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, as quoted by the Associated Press.
“With more Egyptian dissidents and critics of the Sisi regime arriving in Europe since the military coup, it seems that the Egyptian government has stepped up their surveillance and disinformation efforts in order to counter these critical voices from abroad,” said Ilyas Saliba, researcher on human rights and democracy at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.