The death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of his own government shocked the world this year—yet he was far from the first to be targeted by the Saudi government abroad. His was only the most recent and grisly example of the Royal Court’s long-standing pattern of suppressing its citizens abroad. Over the years, the Saudi government has repeatedly forced or coerced dissenting expats to return “home”—where many vanish for good. Others receive ambiguous summons to their local embassies, where they report facing intimidation, blackmail, or threats to their family members back home. Emerging reports also revealed a vast online campaign by the Saudi government to silence citizens through hacking, “troll armies,” smear campaigns, and even spying inside Twitter headquarters.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”), this crackdown has expanded to include not only journalists and dissidents, but ordinary Saudi citizens seeking new lives outside the Kingdom. Among them are a number of female asylees in Germany who fled Saudi to escape domestic abuse, forced marriages, and the denial of their right to work—abuses underpinned by the Kingdom’s notorious “male guardianship” laws. Since arriving, however, they have discovered that their very existence as asylees draws the displeasure of MBS’s state, where optics are paramount. As such, they have been targets of government harassment, including face-to-face confrontations and online abuse. Officials have also tried to draw them to the embassy, threatening several with blackmail using information that indicates they have been surveilled, hacked, or informed upon.
While struggling to avoid deportation, they watched MBS’s political comeback after the Khashoggi scandal with growing dread. One woman whose asylum request was recently denied admitted to considering suicide as an alternative to returning to her hostile homeland. “We thought we would be safe if we could just make it to Europe,” she explains, “but now, we see maybe nowhere is safe for us. We are alone in the world.”