The number of Saudi Arabian nationals who apply for asylum in the European Union (EU) has increased by 106 per cent within the first six months of 2019 alone, official figures released last week have shown.
According to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the latest data shows that 101 Saudis applied for asylum in the EU during the first half of this year, compared to 49 in the same period last year. The data reveals that 71 Saudi asylum seekers have been waiting for a response to their applications for less than six months while 86 have been waiting for over six months.
The increase in applications by Saudi nationals comes at a time when the overall number of asylum applications from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries fell 31 per cent. While Saudi Arabia has had the largest percentage change, it was by no means the largest group of applicants, with the largest being from Kuwait at 302 applicants; a 44 per cent decrease from the 548 applications submitted in the first six months of 2018.
Amid an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere prevailing in Saudi Arabia, particularly following the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom has taken a harsher approach to dealing with activists, dissidents and the slightest criticism against the government and its policies. Reports of women's rights activists and religious scholars being imprisoned and tortured within Saudi jails have been revealed in recent months, and even dissidents who live abroad have not been free of the kingdom's tight grip. Last year self-exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the kingdom's consulate in Turkey's commercial capital Istanbul.
Robert Mason, associate professor and director of the Middle East Studies Centre at the American University in Cairo, informed Arabian Business that "A relatively small but rising number of Saudi university students, princes, Islamists, and teenage girls have fled the kingdom due to fear of persecution, retaliation against them for political activism, or lack of personal autonomy due to the system of male guardianship in place."
"They are mainly seeking asylum in the United States, Canada, and Europe which have generous benefits and liberal asylum laws," especially due to the legal prohibition of forcing asylum seekers or refugees to return to a country in which they are likely to be persecuted.
"These figures from the European Asylum Support Office highlight a worrisome trend in the post-Arab Spring period," Mason added. "Women's rights activists, poets, intellectuals, Islamists, and others who express political dissent in the kingdom have been rounded up in greater numbers since 2012."
Despite the staggering increase in Saudi applications, the larger groups of applicants include Iran at 11,118 applications with an increase of 28 per cent and Syrians at 30,316 applications with a decrease of 12.5 per cent. The United States (US) also had an increase of 55 per cent, with 126 Americans having applied for asylum in the EU.