A flurry of diplomatic cables released last week suggest the government of Saudi Arabia has financed newspapers inside Canada, and perhaps one of the country's biggest Islamic NGOs to the tune of nearly $150,000.
The documents, published by whistleblower group WikiLeaks, contain memos from the ministries of foreign affairs and culture, which discuss releasing funds to Canadian entities.
"Most world governments engage in PR campaigns to fend off criticism and build relations in influential places," reads a WikiLeaks report accompanying the documents. "Saudi Arabia controls its image by monitoring media and buying loyalties from Australia to Canada and everywhere in between."
One of the leaked documents — which the government in Riyadh adamantly claims are faked — reads that the Saudi government would be contributing $10,000 CAD (approx. $8,100 USD) "to meet the Ministry of Culture and Information's participation in the following Canadian newspapers."
The list includes four outlets.
El-Ressala, a bi-monthly Egyptian-Canadian newspaper; al-Muhajir, a newspaper "issued by the Ministry of Yemeni expatriates affairs"; el Dibloumasi, an Algerian "electronic political newsletter," according to their Facebook page; and al Akhbar, a weekly newspaper published in Montreal.
According to the cable, the first two on the list received $2,000 in Canadian currency, while the latter two received $3,000 apiece.
The documents aren't dated, but appear to be from 2004. Other documents contained in the leak reveal that Riyadh's funding of foreign media continued throughout the last decade.
For example, hefty cheques — phrased as "subscription fees" in the documents — were paid to various newspapers across the Middle East. One outlet received 9,750 Kuwait Dinar (approx. $32,000 USD). A paper in the United Arab Emirates was paid 40,000 AED (approx. $11,000 USD).
The kingdom's "subscription" to foreign media also includes 40,000 Australia dollars (approx. $31,000 USD) to outlets in that country.
While it's not exactly clear what benefit that number of subscriptions would bring to Riyadh, the WikiLeaks release claims "these publications are then expected to return the favour by becoming an 'asset' in the Kingdom's propaganda strategy."
A separate memo requests a 500,000 Riyal (approx. $133,000 USD) contribution to the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC), an umbrella group for different Islamic groups across the country, seemingly for the development and construction of a school expansion in Mississauga, just outside of Toronto.
The memo reads there is "no reason [the project] not be met with financial assistance from the Government of the Kingdom."
A statement sent to VICE News by MAC confirms that the payment was made.
"The Muslim Association of Canada did solicit funding from the Embassy of Saudi Arabia as part of a formal application process completed in 2007. That donation was approved by the Saudi authorities in 2013," the statement reads.
MAC says it reported all of the donations to the Canada Revenue Agency, and that the Saudi money was only a fraction of its overall donations.
This would not be the first time news emerged about MAC's funding. In January, it faced questions over allegations it was funneling money to IRFAN Canada, a now banned charity authorities alleged contributed funds to Hamas.
According to RCMP documents obtained by the Toronto Sun, the surveillance showed a person seemingly connected with IRFAN exiting a MAC mosque in Montreal, leading the police force to conclude that "It is possible that (REDACTED) is still accepting donations on behalf of IRFAN from the MAC in Montreal." The episode occurred years after IRFAN was delisted as a charity but months before it was listed as a sponsor of terrorism.
IRFAN, which was raided by police in 2014, is appealing that designation, and no charges have been filed against MAC. The RCMP investigation appears to be ongoing.
The MAC statement notes that the organization believed IRFAN to be a legitimate charity, and that it partnered with numerous organizations.
"MAC has not supported IRFAN in any way since the allegations that led to its delisting as a charity by the Government of Canada in 2011," reads a MAC statement. "We have no knowledge of an ongoing investigation. We have offered to work with the RCMP and security officials in the past and continue to be open to collaboration."
If the Saudi government is indeed looking to buy goodwill in Canada, it would fit into their long-term trade goals in the region. Riyadh has, in recent years, forged economic and security partnerships with Ottawa that has involved major military deals, strategic partnerships to counter growing Iranian influence, and extensive medical and educational exchanges.
Many of the WikiLeaks documents go into detail about efforts to forge a more substantive military and economic partnership between the two oil-rich countries.
The latest Saudi leaks — over 500,000 cables and documents, according to WikiLeaks, all obtained through unknown means — gives a rare glimpse into one of the most secretive, totalitarian states in the world and how it conducts itself diplomatically.
A spokesperson for the Saudi government said "many of [the documents] had been fabricated in a very obvious manner," al Jazeera reported.
But this isn't the first time the whistleblower group revealed embarrassing details about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its intelligence tradecraft.
In a previous WikiLeaks cable dump in 2010, it was revealed the Saudis were a major cash financier of jihadist terrorist entities all over the globe.
"Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, LeT [the same group that carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008] and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources, often during Hajj and Ramadan," reads one of the leaked American memos.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that MAC was raided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In fact, it was under police surveillance in 2014 and another group, IRFAN, was subjected to a police raid. VICE News regrets the error.