10 December 2018

Answer: The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. Why?

The employment of the Saudi consulate-general and consul-general’s residence in Istanbul in the horrifying murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in early October is now notorious. This has been followed by the revelation in a Channel 4 News report on 3 December (‘Saudi activist: “One tweet is enough to ruin your life”’) that the Saudi Embassy in Washington has been routinely intimidating Saudi students studying in the United States who voice criticisms of their government; for example, by severing grants, refusing to renew passports, and urging them to return home to an unknown fate. In these circumstances, the size, profile and declared aims of other Saudi missions warrant a closer look. A case in point is the Mayfair-based Saudi Embassy in London.

This embassy is enormous. According to the latest London Diplomatic List, it has the third largest diplomatic staff of any embassy in the British capital. With 99 diplomatic officers, it is exceeded only by China (116) and the United States (181). In fourth position, some way behind, is the German Embassy (77), which is followed by France (68), Japan and Brazil (each with 61), Canada (60) and Russia (50). There is another striking feature of the Saudi Embassy: it has no less than 13 cultural attachés. This puts it, in this regard, virtually in a class of its own. Its nearest rival is France, with nine cultural attachés, followed by China with six and Italy with three. As for the other London embassies, most either have no cultural attaché at all, just one, or one officer who wears this hat along with another such as press officer. What do all of these Saudi cultural attachés do? Helpfully, the section of which they are members, the ‘Diplomatic Office of the Cultural Bureau’ (aka the ‘Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau’ or SACB), which has separate offices in Chiswick High Road, answers this question in some detail on its own website. From this it is abundantly clear that its ‘core functions’ are exclusively concerned with university-level educational relationships, and most are unexceptionable. However, in so far as this involves Saudi students studying at British universities, of which there were over 8,000 at the last count, it is also apparent that the SACB holds them in an iron grip. Its website makes no bones about this (pun intended). It’s one thing to require reports at the end of every semester on the progress of these students at British universities, and to ‘urge’ them to participate in cultural activities that ‘do not conflict with Islamic faith and Saudi traditions’; but, in the circumstances, the further and last listed of the Bureau’s ‘core functions’ should ring an alarm bell. For this is stated to be the ‘supervision and monitoring of the activities of Saudi students and their clubs [emphasis added].’ No wonder Saudi Arabia’s cultural attachés represent, on a rough estimate, almost a quarter of all diplomatic officers of this class in the British capital.