Analysis |

There's No Way Out of the Saudi Royal Prison

Critics of the regime in the country and abroad have fallen victim to Saudi Arabia's social media surveillance system. A handful of activists have garnered international attention, but many have not won this 'glory'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul.
Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul.Credit: Handout / Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Saudi Arabia won praise last Wednesday for a “humanitarian” gesture when it released human rights activist Loujain Alhathloul from jail. Alhathloul, a journalist, had been convicted of conspiring against public order via the internet, and of being involved in “enlisting foreign elements” and in various activities opposed to the values of the kingdom.

Her real “guilt” is connected to the public campaign she led to challenge the ban on Saudi women obtaining driver’s licenses, which was eventually overturned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of his campaign to change the image of the kingdom. Nevertheless, Alhathloul – who spent 1,001 days in jail out of a six-year term – has been in and out of prison since 2018. She may be the best-known female Saudi rights activist in the world, but there are many other activists with similar agendas who are still incarcerated, among them critics of Salman who have been arrested in recent years and whose circumstances are unknown.

One of those activists is Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 36, a graduate of Notre Dame de Namur University in California, who decided to return to his homeland to work for the advancement of young Saudis. Sadhan was arrested in March 2018 at the offices of the Red Crescent, where he worked, and his family was barred from visiting him or speaking with him on the phone for two years. Exactly one year ago he received permission for a one-minute phone call with his mother and sister, both of whom are U.S. citizens, and when the conversation ended, communication was once again cut off.

Requests from members of the U.S. Congress, pressure on human rights groups and other actions on Sadhan’s behalf have all been in vain thus far. His family was not informed of the charges against him and didn’t know where he was incarcerated until it emerged that he was in the notorious al-Ha’ir Prison.

It seems that Sadhan fell victim to the Saudi social media surveillance system, which has worked persistently to uncover critics of the regime; this suspicion was confirmed by a relative who worked for Twitter and informed Sadhan that his Twitter account was being tracked. The affair was brought to light after a former senior Saudi intelligence official, Saad al-Jabri, who fled Saudi Arabia for Canada in 2017, sued Salman in August, claiming that the crown prince had sent a squad to assassinate him in Canada. The suspected assassins were not given permission to enter Canada and the Canadian security forces began to closely monitor Jabri’s home.

Jabri was formerly an adviser and close associate of Mohammed bin Nayef, who was crown prince before he was deposed by King Salman in 2017 and replaced by Mohammed bin Salman. Nayef, who spearheaded the Saudi anti-terror campaign during the time of King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, and is very close to the U.S. intelligence services, is under house arrest by order of Mohammed bin Salman, who fears Nayef’s intention to remove him as crown prince.

Jabri’s lawsuit also includes the accusation that MISK, an organization established by Mohammed bin Salman in 2011 to empower young people in Saudi Arabia, is used to enlist Saudi citizens and foreigners around the world to surveil opponents of the Saudi regime. The organization’s website describes impressive projects to encourage young people to study technology, culture, art and digital communication. MISK also sponsors knowledge competitions for young people and distributes generous scholarships.

But along with this educational activity it appears that it is working to promote Mohammed bin Salman’s political interests. The organization is suspected of enlisting two Twitter employees to locate the Twitter accounts of opponents of the regime inside the kingdom and beyond its borders. One of the most important targets of the two employees was an anonymous social media activist known as Mujtahidd, who for years has been reporting about goings-on in the royal court. His reports are usually considered reliable and they are frequently quoted in diplomatic and media reports.

Efforts to locate Mujtahidd have so far failed, but they persist under the supervision of Badr al-Asaker. He once headed MISK and was also subordinate to Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s senior adviser on media and intelligence who is suspected of being involved in and even initiating the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Although MISK is mentioned indirectly in the lawsuit, the organization continues to handle international contacts and collaborations with the United Nations and other such organizations worldwide. In the past it has worked together with the Bill Gates Foundation and Harvard University. Harvard stopped working with MISK after Khashoggi’s murder.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has countersued Jabri through 10 government corporations, demanding that he return billions of dollars that it claims he pocketed during his time as a senior intelligence official. The kingdom claims that Jabri, together with Nayef, embezzled money and illicitly received and purchased assets around the world. Following the lawsuit, the Canadian authorities froze Jabri’s assets until the case is resolved in court.

Saudi Arabia’s ongoing efforts locate and punish its critics are not in dispute. It’s hard to know how many political prisoners are under arrest or in jail after being brought to trial. As opposed to Loujain Alhathloul, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan and a handful of other activists who have garnered international attention, there are many who have not won this “glory,” especially after former U.S. President Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman together pushed the issue of Saudi human rights off the agenda of issues for joint discussion. Now the Saudis want to see how President Joe Biden plans to deal with this sensitive and shocking subject.

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