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Story Publication logo January 15, 2019

The Saudi Government's Global Campaign to Silence Its Critics

Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. Image courtesy of user answer5/Shutterstock. Turkey, 2018.

The death of Jamal Khashoggi shocked the world—but he was far from the first Saudi dissident to be...

Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Berlin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [CC by 3.0]. Germany, 2008.
Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Berlin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [CC by 3.0]. Germany, 2008.

On the morning of August 18, 2017, Rana deboarded her Saudia Airlines flight in Munich, Germany, bleary-eyed and clutching a small leather bag. Her husband, a near stranger whom she had married two days earlier, in Riyadh, with the stroke of her father's pen, marched ahead of her. As the couple approached passport control, he reluctantly handed Rana her passport, which he had taken before landing. Rana stole a glance inside to ensure that the note she had scribbled in the airplane's bathroom was still tucked between the newly minted pages. The line crawled forward. Rana's heart pounded. A German officer processed her husband's paperwork, then waved Rana over. Rana slid her documents to the official on the other side of the glass window. Inside, a short plea, written in English, read, "i want to apply for asylum." And then, in shaky German, "mein Mann weiß nicht"—"my husband doesn't know."

The moment had been a lifetime in the making. Rana's earliest memories were dominated by the violent fits of her father, whose abuse once drove her mother to run away, with Rana, then just a toddler, in tow. The experience served as an early lesson on Saudi Arabia's patriarchal norms. Rana's mother, under pressure from her family, abandoned her hopes for a divorce and returned to her husband. Later, she explained her reasoning to Rana: it is better to suffer abuse inside a respectable marriage, she said, than to live as a woman in disgrace.

At school, Rana chafed under long hours of religious instruction, which taught her to fear hellfire and respect men as fundamentally superior. At Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, a brief phase of online activism landed her at the disciplinary office, where the administration threatened police action. Later, attempting to help a friend suffering from domestic violence, Rana was rebuffed by authorities for attempting to file a police report. After college, Rana's hopes for a career as an English translator were repeatedly blocked by her father, who considered the prospect shameful. While she was eventually able to start a small phone-repair business with several female friends, she was soon confronted by her worst nightmare: her parents arranged for her marriage. On their first meeting, her young suitor informed her that he'd expect to start having children immediately, and that she would devote herself to child-rearing. "I saw him, and I saw the end of my life," she told me.

Rana, who was twenty-four at the time, was still unwilling to surrender. "I realized there would be no future for me in Saudi Arabia," she recalled. "I had no choice but to find a way out." In this, she made her new husband an unwitting accomplice: he agreed to take her on a honeymoon, giving her an alibi to obtain a passport and travel documents—something no Saudi woman can do without the permission of her wali, or male guardian. He'd even been accommodating when she suggested that they travel to Germany, which she'd identified, after extensive research, as the best asylum destination in Europe.

Moments after handing over her passport in Munich—on her first day outside of her native country—Rana was escorted away from her husband, who quickly grew hysterical. For the next fourteen hours, she was shuttled between various holding facilities, each packed with migrants from around the world, before being assigned a room in a nearby halfway house. Collapsing into bed that night, numb with exhaustion and relief, her mind circled a single thought. "I had left behind a life that others chose for me, and, finally, I was choosing for myself," she told me. "I thought, This choice is freedom."

But, even as Rana slipped beyond the stifling grip of her husband and father, she unwittingly placed herself in the crosshairs of a new, more formidable foe. Back home, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince popularly known as M.B.S., had come to dominate the Saudi royal court and was working tirelessly to project an image of himself as a liberal reformer. The young monarch had spent billions on an international P.R. campaign, touting a message of a Saudi renaissance, in which his subjects would enjoy unprecedented freedom and prosperity. This new Saudi Arabia would, in turn, become an "investment powerhouse" for global capital and a respected peer among the world's most powerful economies. As evidence of his country's liberal awakening, the crown prince frequently played up themes of women's empowerment, promising to increase the female workforce to thirty per cent by 2030 and to allow women to drive for the first time in the country's history.

The crown prince's ambitious agenda won him acclaim from many in the West who hailed him as the harbinger of a more moderate, even democratic, Arabian Gulf. However, at home, M.B.S. was seizing power through blatantly autocratic means. By the end of 2017, about a year before the murder of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, M.B.S. had locked up hundreds of people, including civilians and members of the royal family, in an effort to clamp down on opposition, both real and imagined. At the same time, the crown prince was overseeing a quiet campaign of suppression of Saudis abroad, working through embassies and back channels to silence them through blackmail, intimidation, and forced repatriation. These efforts were not only reserved for vocal dissidents like Khashoggi, who fled Saudi Arabia around the same time that Rana did. Increasingly, the Saudi government was widening its net of censorship and harassment to include private Saudi citizens who possessed little or no political profile.

The reason appeared to be a matter of image control: though Rana had refrained from publicizing her critical opinions of the government, she still represented a troubling demographic for M.B.S. The number of Saudi asylum seekers had increased dramatically since the beginning of the crown prince's rise—from five hundred and seventy-five cases, in 2015, the year he emerged on the political scene, to over twelve hundred, in 2017. (This was in addition to a swelling number of Saudis who, like Khashoggi, opted for self-exile under separate visa processes.) The implicit critique of this exodus was enough to stoke the ire of the crown prince. Rana would soon learn what the case of Khashoggi later taught the world: the young monarch's obsessive need to control his reputation heeded no national boundaries.

It began with a WhatsApp message that appeared on Rana's phone a few weeks after her arrival in Germany. She had been moved to a small town in the northeast of the country, where she was staying in a complex reserved for refugee families. The message came from one of Rana's friends and former business partners in Riyadh, informing her that the small phone-repair shop she'd helped launch was in trouble with the government. On a recent trip to the bank, the partner had been informed that Rana's name had been flagged; as a result, authorities had frozen the company's assets. The news puzzled Rana, who had painstakingly set her affairs in order before fleeing Saudi Arabia, registering at two separate government offices, including the Ministry of Commerce and Investment, to grant power of attorney to her co-founders. Rana's associates hired a lawyer, who informed them that, while their paperwork was in order, the authorities would not reverse their decision. "Everything they tried failed," Rana said. "The authorities just insisted I had to go to the Embassy to fix the problem." (Rana's name, as well as the names of other women in this story, have been changed to protect their safety.)

The Saudi state frequently uses finances and other "national services" as leverage to lure its citizens into face-to-face meetings with government officials. One Saudi asylum seeker, who fled to Frankfurt, in the summer of 2018, received a text alert, as her plane touched down, that the government had frozen her bank account. She was later notified that her National Identification Card and all the privileges afforded to Saudi citizens, including passport renewals, e-banking, and residency permits, had been revoked. She was instructed to return to Saudi Arabia to fix the issue.

Saudi authorities have also used bank activity as a way of locating citizens, Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher, for Human Rights Watch, who focusses on Saudi Arabia, says. He cited a case of three Saudi women who fled to Lebanon, along with seven of their children, in 2016. "Twenty minutes after they swiped their credit card to register at a hotel, Lebanese authorities showed up to turn them over to the Saudis." Khashoggi's own case was predicated on paperwork—after seeking government documents for his upcoming marriage at the consulate in Istanbul, on September 28th, he was told to return a week later, during which time the trap was laid for his murder.

Rana, who is quiet and deliberate by nature, had serious misgivings about entering her country's Embassy in Berlin. While Khashoggi's murder was still months away, Rana had heard plenty of stories—some documented and others rumored—of Saudis disappearing abroad. "Inside the Embassy, I'm not in Germany. I'm in their territory," Rana said. "I could disappear and no one would know, or they wouldn't be able to help me." None of Rana's business partners had known in advance of her plan to flee the country, but all of them understood her hesitation about meeting with officials. "Now, especially under M.B.S., everyone is suspicious of the government," she said.

In the meantime, Rana tried to focus on her new, often confounding life in Germany. In the camp, she befriended a few Saudi women who, like her, had fled oppressive homes in hopes of a new life. She was particularly drawn to Farah, a twenty-five-year-old former BodyPump coach, from Riyadh, with a buoyant mane of dark hair and an athletic swagger. "She is very outgoing and bold," Rana said with a smile. "The opposite of me." One thing the two did have in common was their troubling run-ins with the Saudi state. Within days of arriving in Germany, Farah began receiving messages on Twitter and Snapchat from pro-government accounts, warning her that she'd pay for disgracing the reputation of Saudi Arabia. Farah also began hearing from friends back in Saudi Arabia that authorities had been interrogating people associated with her. During questioning, her friends said, the investigators revealed personal information about Farah's life in Germany, including details about her whereabouts and activities. "That was different," Farah told me. "How did they know so much about my life? Did someone I knew feed them information?"

As Farah and I shared a hookah and milk chocolates in the drafty, bare-walled apartment that Rana now calls home, the subject turned to family. Rana emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tray of spaghetti and cream-cheese sauce—one of the few recipes that she'd mastered since acquiring a place of her own—and joined us on the couch, which doubles as her bed. Both women were aware that the government routinely penalizes the relatives of those it deems disloyal or dangerous to the state. Farah cited the case of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist currently living in Canada. After Abdulaziz flouted the Saudi government's efforts to silence him, the state arrested his two brothers back in Jeddah. Similarly, after Khashoggi fled the state, the government harassed his family members and placed his son, Salah, under a travel ban. Members of Farah's family were interrogated shortly after her escape and have since cut off their already strained communication. "I didn't want anything to happen to my family," Farah said, "even if we weren't close." Rana says that most of her relatives and friends are reluctant to speak with her for fear of reprisal. "Sometimes I get a little video or note from one of my younger siblings on Snapchat, but, mostly, that's it," she told me. "I don't miss Saudi Arabia at all, but I do miss my mother."

Still, the women strived to create a sense of normalcy, occupying themselves with German classes, Netflix, and part-time work. Their delicate calm was shattered, though, in April, 2018, when Farah encountered two strange Arab men outside of her apartment building. Their message, spoken in the Saudi dialect of Arabic, was ominous. "They told me they knew information about me, they knew who I was, a Saudi woman who had left the country," Farah explained. "They told me, 'You will be sorry.' " The men had not presented any government identification and made no specific threats. But Farah felt sure that they were loyalists of the regime. Around the same time, she received a cryptic photograph over WhatsApp from a man claiming to be an employee of the Interior Ministry. In the picture, a file containing Farah's name and photograph lay open on a desk. The document included an order for her arrest.

A few weeks later, two men driving a large white S.U.V. appeared on a deserted street where Farah was walking alone at night. As the vehicle was easing slowly toward her, Farah ducked behind a tree. The men got out, apparently searching for her. It was too dark to determine their identities, but Farah suspected that they were the same pair she'd encountered at her apartment. "I was so sure I was going to be kidnapped," she recalled, grabbing her face with her hands. "I thought, I will disappear tonight, this is the end." To her relief, two female pedestrians appeared on the street, and the men quickly returned to the S.U.V. and sped off.

Saudi Arabia has long used coercion against its citizens abroad, but evidence indicates that this practice has intensified under M.B.S. In October, a Saudi official told Reuters that the crown prince has issued "standing orders to negotiate the return of dissidents," adding that this gives officials "the authority to act without going back to the leadership." These efforts, which were often directed by Saud al-Qahtani, a former senior adviser to the crown prince who has been implicated in Khashoggi's death, have been expanded to target defectors and non-activists alike. "Before M.B.S., most Saudis had a general sense of where the red lines were—if you stayed away from them, you would probably be safe," Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi academic and senior fellow at Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said. "But there is no way to know where the red line is anymore. The message from the government now is: you don't even have to be political to be targeted. Just being slightly outspoken, even just on social or religious issues, could make you a target, and you could be harmed."

Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi academic and scholar in residence at New York University's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, says that this strategy of preëmptive censorship is a trademark of Saudi Arabia under M.B.S. "What M.B.S. wants is total control of the discourse," Dosari said. "He has no tolerance for anyone who might challenge or even complicate his image."

This chilling effect is also felt by many of the roughly ninety thousand Saudi students studying abroad on government scholarships. In recent years, many of them have had their tuition threatened or suspended in retaliation for perceived criticism of the government. In some cases, students report being contacted and asked to return to the kingdom, or to report to a local embassy or consulate, to negotiate the resumption of their scholarships. "I got a call from a woman who said she was working for the Saudi government," Hani Albandi, a Saudi graduate of Indiana State, said. "They said my political tweets made me an enemy of the country, and if I didn't stop they would cut all the school funding for me and my wife." Fearful of jeopardizing his future, Albandi complied. A number of students also reported encounters with peers whom they feared were government informants. "Saudi students are getting both implicit and explicit messages to stay away from anything vaguely political," Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, says. "We're seeing increasing signs, especially under M.B.S., that their speech and campus activities are being monitored."

In October, a day before Khashoggi's disappearance, the Canadian research group Citizen Lab exposed an apparent plot by the Saudi government to use spyware to hack into the personal accounts of Abdulaziz, the Saudi student and activist studying in Quebec. (Abdulaziz had already had his scholarship revoked, in 2013, over his criticism of the Saudi government.) In a parallel drama, nearly nine thousand Saudi students studying in Canada had their government scholarships abruptly cancelled this August, as Ottawa and Riyadh clashed over the fate of jailed Saudi activists. Like Rana, many Saudis now fear that, in M.B.S.'s age of hypersensitivity and extra-territorial control, even their best attempts at self-censorship may not protect them.

Rana arrived outside the barricaded gates of the Saudi Embassy in Berlin a little before 9 a.m. Back home in Riyadh, her partners had been running into serious financial trouble. "The business was really suffering, because they couldn't find any way to access their money," she said. The authorities only repeated their insistence that Rana present herself to the Saudi Embassy. "I asked other Saudi refugees, and they all warned me not to go." Farah, too, was vehemently opposed to the idea, but Rana's concern for her friends eventually trumped her fears for herself. "I felt so guilty for putting them in this position," she said. "I decided to go, even if it was risky."

Above the chrome-plated walls of the Embassy, the Saudi flag, emblazoned with Arabic calligraphy and a drawn sabre, fluttered in the warm breeze. Farah, who had insisted on accompanying Rana, would keep vigil on the sidewalk directly outside. Rana entered without an appointment; she'd wanted to avoid giving the Saudi authorities any advance warning of her visit. At the entrance, where the female staff were uniformed in abayas and hijabs, she copied down her identification details and surrendered her cell phone. Walking down the marble hallway to a waiting room, she felt bitterly alone.

It would be hours until she was called. She passed the time pacing the holding room, gazing intermittently out the window at a nearby playground. At last, a young woman in a headscarf arrived to escort her. The woman spoke to her with a mechanical cheerfulness, remarking on the many benefits of life in Saudi Arabia and boasting of the country's numerous opportunities for women. Rana opted not to respond. A moment later, they arrived at a small room where two men were waiting—one overweight and pallid, another thin and dark-complexioned. A female officer sat beside them. "Peace to you," they murmured, directing Rana to a chair. She sat with arms bolted to her sides, balling her hands into fists to hide their tremor.

Rana had hoped for a brief discussion about her Saudi bank account. Instead, she endured an hour-long interrogation. The three agents accused Rana of deliberately dishonoring the image of the Saudi state by falsely representing her case as a human-rights issue. "This is nothing more than a rebellion against your family," Rana recalls them saying. "Wouldn't you like to spend Ramadan with your family? We can arrange this. They miss you." She politely explained that she had no interest in living in a country where she felt deprived of her rights. This answer elicited a fresh round of anger, even as the officials vowed that she would "not be arrested" in Riyadh. Their insistence struck Rana as an implicit threat. (The Saudi Embassy in Berlin did not respond to a request for comment.)

At one point, the thin man began insinuating that Rana had come to Germany to pursue sexual promiscuity, saying that he knew she didn't live alone. (At the time, Rana shared an apartment with a boyfriend.) The officials also demanded that Rana give them her German identification card to photocopy for their records. She refused. Later, when her interrogators promised her, "Don't worry, you will be able to take your passport and walk out of here today," Rana felt that their intention was to remind her of their power to prevent such a peaceful exit.

Rana tried, in vain, to steer the conversation back to the issue of her partners. "I began to realize that they had no intention to help me with my business trouble," she said. "After that, I focussed on just two things: don't say anything more about human rights, and get out of there as soon as possible." She told the group she'd "think about" going back to Saudi Arabia. As the disgruntled officials released her, they implied that her business partners would only continue to suffer as long as she remained in Germany.

Rana emerged from the Embassy in the late afternoon, exhausted and shaken. Outside, Farah's face was burnished with hours of anxious waiting. She had been preparing to call the police, she said, and now demanded to know what had happened inside. Rana offered only fragmented, defeated replies. Guilt and dread mingled with relief as the two made their way toward the train station. Had she just made the situation worse? Having shown her face but refused their wishes, would the government now intensify their harassment of her, or of her friends and family back home? Reflexively, Rana glanced over her shoulder, scanning for any sign of a pursuer.

Farah and Rana are still bewildered by the intensity with which they were targeted. "In the Embassy, they treated me as a criminal," Rana said, over beers and nachos, on a snowy evening in late 2018. "I didn't expect this. I'm not here trying to cause trouble. I'm not an activist. I just want a quiet life, to come back to my apartment each night in peace." Beside her, Farah's sharp brown eyes were ringed with shadows. "I'm afraid to even tweet now."

Shortly before New Year's, Rana and Farah shared hookah and tea with Leena, a recently arrived asylum seeker from Riyadh. To escape Saudi Arabia, she'd hacked into her father's phone and logged on to Absher, the popular mobile app linked to Saudi's Ministry of Interior. From there, Leena was able to use her wali's privileges to issue herself permission to travel and slipped away shortly after. Arriving in Germany, Leena learned that her family had reported her to the authorities. Her Saudi bank account and national I.D. number were promptly revoked, but Leena considered it a small price to pay for freedom. "After twenty-six years of abuse, anything is heaven compared to Saudi Arabia," she says.

But her future was thrown into doubt when the German government rejected her application for asylum. During her hearing, Leena said, the judge pushed back on Leena's plea by citing the "new freedoms and reforms" inaugurated by M.B.S. "They told me, 'Saudi Arabia is changed—go back. There are women's rights there now.' " At this, the three women chorused rough, cold laughter. Farah, too, was denied asylum this past summer. "They told me it was my fault for being an activist, and that the government was changing in Saudi Arabia anyway, so why was I causing trouble?" Both women are currently in the appeals process. (A spokesperson for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, in Berlin, told me, "In the personal hearing, the asylum seeker gets the chance to explain his or her personal reasons for flight. On the basis of this statement, the decision-maker examines if and what kind of protection must be given.")

Rana's case was approved, in the spring of 2018, but the majority of the Saudis she knows, including one gay asylum seeker in a nearby German city, have been rejected. "There's a sense that since we're not running away from a war, like the Syrians are, for example, our cases aren't really serious," she said. "A lot of people say, 'It's getting better for women under M.B.S.' "

While it's true that Saudi women can, as of June, 2018, drive cars, and that the Saudi government has scaled back some legal restrictions on women, Rana and her companions all fear prison or worse if they return. "My family would kill me," Leena said. "I am sure." Farah points out that women in prison in Saudi Arabia can only be bailed out by their wali. "My father would put me there and leave me there," she said. "It happens to disobedient women all the time." The same plea was made by Rahaf al-Qunun, in January, when she was intercepted, in Bangkok, by a Saudi diplomat and Thai authorities as she attempted to escape to Australia. Barricading herself in the airport hotel, the eighteen-year-old tweeted cries for help and sent statements to Reuters via her phone. "My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait," she told Reuters. "My life is in danger." (After a two-day standoff, Qunun was released into the care of the United Nations Refugee Agency, or U.N.H.C.R.)

Khashoggi's death and Qunun's near capture have left Rana and her friends feeling more vulnerable than ever. "M.B.S. has showed us he can do anything he wants," Leena said. "The world let him get away with murder. So things are worse for us. He feels stronger, not weaker, now, like no one can touch him." The women frequently trade off apartments, spending the night in groups rather than sleeping alone. They also continue to avoid all semblance of activism or political speech—a partial win, perhaps, for M.B.S. But none of their precautions can shake the constant fear of their government's reach. "We're not like the people escaping war in their country," Rana says. "When they come here, the bombs are behind them, they are safe. But not us. The danger follows us."


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