Saudi students in the US are being constantly spied on by the government in Riyadh, a PBS NewsHour report has found. Intelligence experts and Saudi students interviewed by the American daily evening television news programme said that the Saudi government closely monitored students when they leave to study in the US and impose penalties on those who criticise the kingdom while studying abroad. These include: passport freezes, death threats, intimidation, retraction of scholarships and attempts to lure them back to the country.
One anonymous student informed NewsHour that “inside every student organization we are involved in, [the kingdom has] one or two spies. The Saudi embassy contacts these students and they say ‘Now, if you have an event, we need a full report back to us on everything that happened. Just write the report, and add everything that was said during the event.’”
All the students interviewed for the story said that the government under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known also as MBS, makes a point of ensuring that students studying abroad under the kingdom’s scholarship programme know that they are being watched.
As many as 60,000 Saudi students are said to be currently studying in the US and nearly 40,000 have scholarships from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education that provide full tuition, health insurance and a monthly stipend.
Spying on students, which is said to have increased under MBS, is said to be having a chilling effect. “Every Saudi student in the US is too scared to have an opinion, even in our own hangouts. No one can criticize the government … and there’s no second chance. If they take away your scholarship, that’s it,” said Abdulrahman Al-Mutairy, an outspoken student at the University of San Diego.
Al-Mutairy said he learned first-hand the consequences of criticising the kingdom after he began speaking out against the Saudi religious establishment on social media last August. He was told to stop talking, or everything he received through scholarship programme would be taken away. He said he was instructed over the phone by a Cultural Mission official to sign the letter by the following or his scholarship would be revoked, and all of his benefits would be put on hold.
He was not alone. Others including Abdullah Al-Ouda, a Georgetown University fellow, and son of jailed scholar Salman Al-Ouda, spoke about his ordeal. He too was warned not to say anything critical about Saudi Arabia. Shockingly the arrest of his father was used to intimidate him into silence. Al-Ouda alleged that Saudi authorities resorted to psychological torture with threats of mistreatment of his father if he continued his activism in the US. His father was also given the same warning.
The Saudi government denies that it attempts to surveil its students or lure them back. For the majority of its students, Saudi embassy spokesperson Fahad Nazer said, the US college experience is a positive one.
However former FBI agent, Frank Montoya, said that he had spoken to a number of his colleagues still serving with the FBI who informed him that the practice of watching students in the US has dramatically expanded under MBS. FBI National Press Office said it had no comment on alleged Saudi surveillance.
Montoya believes that Saudi surveillance of its students and citizens will continue unless there is pushback from the US and in particular the White House which under President Donald Trump has strengthened ties with Riyadh. That seems unlikely as Trump seems to have given MBS a license to do as he pleases, pointing to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: “There is no way the Saudis would kill a journalist, a US resident, if they didn’t think they could get away with it under Trump,” Montoya said.