Mohammad bin Salman Is Scared of Saudi Expats

The crown prince will stop at nothing to silence his growing number of critics, regardless of where they live.

A woman holds a portrait of missing journalist and Riyadh critic Jamal Khashoggi reading "Jamal Khashoggi is missing since October 2" during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate on Oct. 9, 2018 in Istanbul. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds a portrait of missing journalist and Riyadh critic Jamal Khashoggi reading "Jamal Khashoggi is missing since October 2" during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate on Oct. 9, 2018 in Istanbul. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

A week after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the veteran Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi remains missing amid reports of a possible assassination on the orders of the Saudi government. The many U.S. lawmakers, journalists, and activists who had come to consider the former Saudi royal court advisor an indispensable independent voice on political developments in his native country, and specifically on the controversial policies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have demanded answers from the Saudi government. They have been met with only official denials of any Saudi involvement.

If the Saudi government is eventually shown to have been involved in Khashoggi’s mistreatment, much less his death, the big question would be why. At a time when Mohammed bin Salman has spent billions of dollars to revamp his image abroad, why would Saudi Arabia go after such a well-known writer who had made a home for himself in Washington? Even high-profile commentators who have previously praised Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms have warned that kidnapping and possibly killing Khashoggi would prove to be a disaster for the Saudis.

The rationale behind the alleged act becomes easier to understand when it is properly seen as part of a larger pattern. Khashoggi’s rise to prominence was part of an unprecedented—and generally underappreciated—development in recent Saudi history that Mohammad bin Salman has been treating as a threat to his rule: More Saudis than at any time in recent memory have fled the kingdom, with many seeking asylum in Western countries.

The trend started just as the young prince rose to power in 2015, when he became defense minister, and continued as he became crown prince in June 2017. According to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 47 Saudis were granted asylum in fiscal year 2016, up from 39 and 33 in the two previous years. The numbers tended to be lower than 10 in the years after 9/11 and lower than 20 after the Arab Spring. No other Gulf country has seen such an increase in asylum-seekers. The numbers, otherwise small if compared with those of other countries in the region, appear to be only a minor indicator of a broader trend. Activists and officials say a larger number of political dissidents live in self-imposed exile without formally seeking asylum, as Khashoggi did, and many others are in the process of applying.

Just as important are the reasons that Saudis are fleeing. Whereas they once tended to leave because of social oppression related to sectarian tensions or discrimination against gender or sexual orientation, Saudis are increasingly leaving because they feel their freedom of expression—especially the right to criticize their government—has become unduly restricted at home. That’s why they have sought to live abroad, beyond Riyadh’s reach, where they can and do speak their minds freely.

The Saudi government has responded by trying to intimidate the growing number of expatriates. This has become evident in Canada, which has recently found itself in a diplomatic feud with Riyadh over its human rights record and is among the countries that has seen an uptick in Saudi asylum applicants. According to local Canadian media, at least 20 students are applying for asylum in Canada after defying government orders to immediately return home or cease speaking to media about their ordeal.

Even in Canada, some Saudis say they are still not safe. The case of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi with political asylum in Canada, sheds light on the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance. Abdulaziz says he was approached in August by two men allegedly carrying a verbal message from Mohammed bin Salman to return home, where he would be officially immune from harm. After refusing to go back, two of his brothers and a handful of his friends were arrested. Saudis living in exile believe that such attempts are designed to contain criticism outside the country and are wary of fellow Saudis who approach them with similar messages.

“If [you] do not side with the government, you are seen as a traitor. The number of dissidents is unprecedented,” said one Saudi national living in exile in the United States. “I know a lot who were tricked to go back and then were arrested. This has been done [many times]. It’s traditional practice, I guess, to trick people to go back.”

At home, the number of Saudis punished for dissent is staggering. A senior official from a Gulf country allied with Saudi Arabia said several thousand Saudi public figures have been rounded up since last September, a far cry from the numbers reported in local and international media. Most of those rounded up were released after signing a statement pledging they would refrain from criticizing the government. Saudi citizens familiar with the process say people were compelled to sign.

Those arrested in Saudi Arabia, according to their families, were also approached to make similar pledges or even asked to spread pro-government messages on social media to millions of followers in some cases. As a result, Saudi public figures today tend to echo government rhetoric, publicly stay out of politics, or find themselves serving an indefinite jail sentence.

Yahya Assiri, a Saudi human rights activist living in the United Kingdom, said the summons have even targeted influential people in the fashion industry to ensure they don’t divert from the country’s preferred political narrative in any of their public statements.

“You have no choice but to sign,” Khashoggi said to me a month before his disappearance. Khashoggi started hearing of friends being called in to sign similar pledges a year ago before moving to the United States. As the country continued to tighten its grip on free speech, he decided to pack his bags and leave. “We are not in America or Switzerland. If you don’t sign, you could be prosecuted and go to prison. The arrests are designed to control the narrative and to spread fear and intimidation,” Khashoggi said. He may have underestimated, however, the government’s determination to control what the growing number of Saudi citizens living abroad do and say.

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Khashoggi is likely to exacerbate the issue of Saudi dissent under Mohammad bin Salman’s rule. Saudis abroad have grown too scared to return home or even to visit their country’s oversees missions. Over the weekend, for example, Mohamed al-Qahtani, a former Saudi prosecutor, lawyer, and government consultant who currently lives in the U.K., posted a video on Twitter announcing his membership to the Saudi opposition, effectively declaring his own exile.

The Trump administration has praised the allegedly liberalizing reforms introduced by Mohammad bin Salman, and many hoped his energetic leadership would address the country’s numerous festering problems. In reality, his policies have instead focused on individuals known for advocating reform. Many of those reform-minded individuals now lie in prison. And as others move abroad, the Saudi government is showing it is prepared to hunt them down, if that serves to intimidate other critics, wherever they may live.

Ola Salem is a British-Egyptian journalist with a decade of experience covering the Middle East. She is the managing editor of Newlines Magazine, and a master's graduate from New York University. Twitter: @Ola_Salem