Saudi Arabia’s "Barbie" is striking back. In a far call from the extravagant upbringing that earned her the nickname, Princess Sara bint Talal bin Abdulaziz publicly filed a request for political asylum in Britain on July 6, claiming a threat against her freedom. As the granddaughter of Saudi Arabia’s founding king and the daughter of the influential Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Princess Sara is the first high-ranking Saudi to seek refuge abroad.
In a royal family renowned for its control, the princess is no stranger to controversy. After breaking from her father over an unknown dispute, she moved to Britain in 2007, where she successfully sued for full custody of her four children. Despite pleas from the regime to return to Riyadh to discuss the matter in private, she remains engaged in a brutal inheritance battle with her older brother, Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, over their deceased mother’s fortune.
These legal battles pale, however, in comparison to her current claims. Her British visa expired and her application for a new passport denied, the princess now faces the threat of deportation. Though initially willing to consider a return to the kingdom, a February 2011 incident during a meeting with Saudi officials heightened her fear of kidnapping. Malicious rumors have circulated, challenging the princess’s mental stability, political loyalty and — in an accusation she fervently denies as "baseless and malicious" — collaboration with Hezbollah and Iran against the regime. She recently told the Sunday Telegraph:
"I’ve been physically abused. I’ve been mentally abused. My assets have been frozen. They’ve accused me of being in opposition…they haven’t left anything. I’ve been crucified in every way."
Though a Saudi Embassy official reminded the Telegraph that the visa issue was a personal, not political, matter, the princess’s claims reveal the extent of broader problems facing the House of Saud. As Michael Stephens argued in FP last month, the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on June 16, 2012- an uncle and close ally of Princess Sara who shared her animosity toward her father — has challenged the kingdom’s stability. The dangers of royal succession have been exasperated by growing economic and political tensions, and the kingdom’s crown princes will have to suppress domestic and familial fractures in order to survive. In a time of uncertainty, Sara’s request defies more than her father’s wishes: "They know I can’t go back now. There is a threat. That’s a slap in the face of the kingdom," she said.