Stephanie Kirchgaessner in WashingtonThu, 4 March 2021, 5:15 am
Exiled dissidents who have been warned about threats against them by Saudi Arabia said they have been put in greater danger by the Biden administration’s decision to forgo direct sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – even as US intelligence agencies acknowledged that he was complicit in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The activists, including some who have previously been warned that they were possibly at risk of being hurt by agents of the kingdom, said in interviews with the Guardian that they believed the 35-year-old crown prince would be emboldened after the White House declined to sanction him.
“The Biden administration’s release of the ODNI report [into Jamal Khashoggi’s murder] is welcomed transparency, but the lack of direct accountability will give MBS permanent impunity, rendering him more dangerous,” said Khalid Aljabri, the son of a former senior Saudi official who is living in exile in Canada and whose siblings, Omar and Sarah, are being held in the kingdom.
“He is probably thinking he can get away with future assassinations as long as he doesn’t leave fingerprints,” Aljabri said.
The view was shared by a number of Saudis and others who are seen by Prince Mohammed as enemies of the kingdom.
In Norway, pro-democracy activist İyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian critic of the crown prince who is living under asylum protection, was rushed to a safe location in April 2019 following a CIA tip-off that he was facing a potential threat from Saudi Arabia.
“I am actually less safe now than I was before this. The combined facts of [the US saying] “Yes, he did it” and “No, we cannot do anything about it but sanction some of his henchmen” is very dangerous. What does this normalise?” El-Baghdadi said.
“In my mind, this cannot be it. It seems that people in the White House are thinking about conventional foreign policy and they need to wake the fuck up. They are bringing a knife to a gunfight.”
Another high-profile dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who was a close associate of Khashoggi and was warned last summer by Canadian authorities that he was a “potential target” of Saudi Arabia, said it was evident the crown prince “can do whatever he wants”.
“No one is going to stop him, no one is going to punish him, they are going to call him a bad guy,” Abdulaziz, who is Saudi, and whose family and friends have been imprisoned in the kingdom, said. “I’m trying to be optimistic here, but justice has not been served.”
He also pointed with concern to a recent reported case of a Montreal-based Saudi activist, Ahmed Alharby, who sought asylum in Canada and has reportedly been returned to the kingdom under mysterious circumstances following a visit to the Saudi consulate in Ottawa. According to the Toronto Star, a new Twitter account belonging to Alharby has begun posting positive messages about Saudi Arabia, sharply contrasting with Alharby’s earlier previous criticisms.
Saudi officials in Canada have not responded to requests for comment.
In Washington, the Saudi academic and activist Abdullah Alaoudh praised the administration’s new “Khashoggi ban”, a policy the state department has said gives it additional tools to protect journalists and dissidents, but said Prince Mohammed was nevertheless being “let off the hook”.
Under the policy, the department said it would now be allowed to restrict visa issuance to any individual who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, engages in “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities”, including suppression, harassment, surveillance and threats.
“This ban is meant to stop agents of foreign governments from carrying out another horrific murder like Khashoggi’s anywhere in the world,” a state department spokesperson said. But the US government has declined to comment on whether Prince Mohammed himself is one of the 76 Saudis who have been placed on the visa ban list.
Alaoudh, whose father is a prominent Saudi reformist and scholar facing the death penalty in a Saudi prison, said the new policy was a “big deal”, but did not represent “accountability or justice”.
He pointed out that, shortly after the administration released the report as well as sanctions against some Saudi officials, his colleague Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Dawn, a pro-reform group started by Khashoggi, tweeted in Arabic about an op-ed the two had written together calling “MBS” – as he is known – a thorn in the side of the world, and the Saudi people.
He is probably thinking he can get away with future assassinations as long as he doesn’t leave fingerprints
“It was read by tens of thousands of people, but that tweet got almost 3,000 responses from Saudi bots, with attacks and smears against her,” he said.
“If the intention [of the administration] was to send this guy a message, well the mission has not been accomplished. This is the exact same environment, or worse, that led to the killing of Khashoggi,” Alaoudh said.
Hala Aldosari, another Saudi dissident in the US, who is focused of women’s rights, said she had been forced to cut her ties and her work with women in Saudi because they are surveilled at home, and have faced investigations and torture for associating with her.
“In the charges against [some women] activists, my name came up. I was considered a hostile agent,” Aldosari said.
The Biden administration has highlighted the case of the prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was recently released from prison but still faces severe restrictions and a travel ban in Saudi Arabia, as a sign of progress. But Aldosari said there was no sign that the Saudi regime is changing course.
“I don’t think the Saudi regime is amenable to compromise. Since Mohammed bin Salman has come to power, it has been about centralising power and becoming the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. This is not something you can solve by making a classified report transparent,” she said. “There needs to be a visa ban, asset bans on Mohammed bin Salman.”
There are practical issues involved with the safety precautions Aldosari takes, like avoiding Saudi embassies and consulates, which has meant she has not been able to access an inheritance from her father.
“As a person of course I’m worried that I cannot see my family, I cannot contact them and talk to them freely. I always have this sense that they might be affected. And I think all of the activists in diaspora are having those sorts of issues and problems so they cannot actually be close to their own families,” she said.
Asked if she felt she could live with more ease now, given the new administration’s support, she said “of course not”. Even though she said she was grateful for Biden’s personal support for Loujain al-Hathloul – whose name he mentioned when she was released – she said it was important to remember that even this pressure did not ensure Al-Hathloul’s freedom or ability to get back to work as an activist.
“If that happens to someone whose name has been negotiated at the highest level, you can imagine what could happen to people like us,” she said.