The scope of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s attempt to silence critics was exposed yesterday in a report by the New Yorker. Details of a global campaign – run by the Saudi government – revealed that thousands of Saudis have faced threats and intimidation for criticising the Crown Prince, despite not holding strong political views.
According to the report the Crown Prince, also known as MBS, has authorised the use of blackmail, intimidation and forced repatriation of anyone found to be critical of him or his policies, including roughly 90,000 Saudi students studying abroad on government scholarship programmes.
While the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi exposed the brutality with which Riyadh goes after its dissidents, victims cited in the report suggest that the Saudi government’s campaign to clamp down on critics is far greater than previously anticipated.
Despite his claim to be a reformer, the Crown Prince – who has spent millions to polish his image – is accused of using the country’s embassies and back channels, outside the gaze of the international community, against his critics. These tactics are said to be not only used for vocal and prominent dissidents like Khashoggi, but for thousands of Saudi citizens; a claim which suggests that the Saudi government’s anti-dissent net is cast far and wide across the globe.
According to the report’s author, MBS has heeded no national boundaries in going after his critics because of his “obsessive need to control his reputation”. This has meant that Saudi citizens who possessed little or no political profile have been targeted by the Crown Prince’s indiscriminate campaign.
The number of people trying to flee his grasp has more than doubled following his appointment as Crown Prince in 2015. The report said that Saudi asylum seekers had increased from 575 cases to 1200 in 2017; not to mention that there is a swelling number of Saudis who, like Khashoggi, opted for self-exile under separate visa processes.
Critics cited in the report – whose real identity was not revealed over fears for their safety – said that a campaign of fear, blackmail and intimidation via social media was used to lure them into the Saudi embassy in various countries. The campaign typically saw family members and friends being threatened in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi also resorts to various tactics for leverage to lure its citizens into face-to-face meetings with government officials. One Saudi asylum seeker who fled to Frankfurt, Germany in the summer of 2018 received a text alert, as her plane touched down, that the Saudi government had frozen her bank account. 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.
The tactics mentioned in the report are very similar to the way in which Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey prior to his gruesome killing by a group of Saudi hit men on 2 October. The Washington Post journalist was instructed to visit the embassy in order to obtain a divorce certificate so that he could marry his Turkish fiancé, Hatice Cengiz.
While Saudi has a history of clamping down on critics, this took a more aggressive turn under MBS. The Crown Prince, the report said, had issued “standing orders to negotiate the return of dissidents” which officials in Riyadh admitted to Reuters gave them permission to “act without going back to the leadership”.
Analysts described the strategy as “pre-emptive censorship,” which they say has become a trademark of Saudi Arabia under MBS. Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi academic and scholar in residence at New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, was cited saying: “What MBS wants is total control of the discourse. He has no tolerance for anyone who might challenge or even complicate his image.”
The report said that this chilling effect is also being felt by many of the roughly 90,000 Saudi students studying abroad on government scholarships. In recent years, many of them have been threatened that their tuition will be revoked or suspended in retaliation for perceived criticism of the government.
One Saudi asylum seeker in Germany who was asked if the international community will be able to apply pressure on MBS to end his campaign against critics of the country said: “The world let him get away with murder [referring to Khashoggi]. So things are worse for us. He feels stronger, not weaker, now, like no one can touch him.”