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Kidnapping family members is Bin Salman's tactic to intimidate Saudi dissidents

May 25, 2020 at 1:12 pm

A portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears during a show as a part of celebrations of the 88th Saudi National Day at the King Fahad stadium on September 23, 2018 in Riyadh [FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images]

Details are emerging about the kidnapping of two young people within Saudi Arabia which appears to be the latest desperate move by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to exert pressure on one of the Kingdom’s highest profile dissidents. Dr Saad Al-Jabri, once the gatekeeper of Saudi intelligence and security, has broken his silence about the astonishing kidnap of two of his children in a dawn raid on his family home in the Saudi capital, which reveals the unprecedented level that an increasingly paranoid Bin Salman is prepared to go in order to maintain his iron grip on the country and force Al-Jabri to return to Riyadh from his exile in Canada.

“Omar and Sarah were kidnapped at dawn on 16 March and taken out of their beds by about 50 state security officers who arrived in 20 cars,” explained their eldest brother, Khalid Al-Jabri, to BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner. “We don’t even know if they are alive or dead.” During the raid, all evidence including CCTV footage was taken along with the siblings aged 21 and 20 respectively.

Because of his closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saad Al-Jabri has often been viewed with suspicion by a government which is mired in paranoia and suspicion. Predictably, Saudi officials are remaining tight-lipped about this latest crisis to hit the secretive regime.

Al-Jabri’s doctorate is from the University of Edinburgh, and he is widely credited with being the key figure for links between Saudi Arabia and the so-called Five Eyes intelligence agencies in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. His decision to go to the media will infuriate Bin Salman and his cronies in Riyadh.

Credited as the mastermind behind the demise of Al-Qaida within the Kingdom, Al-Jabri also played a key role in foiling a bomb plot by the terrorist group’s branch in Yemen when it smuggled a powerful bomb on-board a cargo plane bound for Chicago. Counterterrorism police found the deadly device disguised as a printer ink toner cartridge in November 2010 and defused it with “minutes to spare” during an unscheduled refuelling stop at Britain’s East Midlands Airport.

In a dysfunctional regime where promotion depends on blind loyalty rather than ability, Al-Jabri stood head and shoulders above many as a man of intellect. He was a cabinet minister and held a very senior rank in the interior ministry. By 2015, though, when the late King Abdullah’s half-brother Salman took to the throne, he was viewed with suspicion.

The appointment of Salman’s son Mohammad as Defence Minister put the two on a collision course when Saudi forces intervened in Yemen’s brutal civil war. The move was opposed by Al-Jabri, who feared – rightly, as it turned out – that Saudi Arabia would be sucked into a costly and ill-fated conflict.

After the bloodless palace coup in which Bin Salman emerged as Crown Prince and de facto ruler in 2017, Al-Jabri fled to Canada. Like anyone and everyone suspected of opposing the prince, he was immediately viewed as a threat. Ever since the October 2018 murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Kingdom’s Consulate in Istanbul, there are fears that Bin Salman has ordered the covert tracking of all Saudi exiles.

The implied threats to their families at home and abroad has so far guaranteed exiles’ silence. However, as Khalid Al-Jabri put it this week, “We are patriots, we love our country, we don’t want to embarrass Saudi Arabia but kidnapping Omar and Sarah like this, it is daylight thuggery by a state.”

Read: Khashoggi’s killing and the rise of a mafia state

The meteoric rise of Bin Salman since his father became King and promoted him from head of his personal court to Defence Minister and then Crown Prince – deposing his uncle in the process – has created unrest among the dozens of close relatives who feel that they have been overlooked. The unrest after the coup is said to have led to a state of paranoia within the Kingdom, where dissenting voices are dealt with quickly.

Bin Salman has been accused of destabilising the Arab world through ill-advised meddling in Yemen, Syria and Libya. The reputation that he has tried to promote of a Kingdom which is now a progressive, enlightened state was damaged even more by the murder of Khashoggi, despite aggressive political lobbying and media disinformation. Stories of human rights abuses – especially against women activists in Saudi Arabia – continue to damage the Crown Prince’s reputation. It remains to be seen how he will react to this latest revelation.

Following the audacious killing of Khashoggi, security around Al-Jabri was said to have been tightened by the Canadian authorities. Now the kidnapping of Al-Jabri’s children will no doubt affect the already tense relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia, which hit an all-time low in 2018 after a pro-Saudi group appeared to threaten the country with a 9/11-style attack.

At the time, Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Ottawa and expelled his Canadian counterpart while suspending trade agreements with the North American country. Middle East observers now say that the extraordinary reaction by Riyadh was perhaps based more on the asylum granted to Al-Jabri and his family by Justin Trudeau’s government. Columnist Margaret Wente wrote in the Globe and Mail that she was “puzzled” by the fact that the “Saudis went inexplicably berserk.” Perhaps the reason is now clearer.

Saudi dissidents everywhere are said to be concerned about their safety. Most have largely stayed silent since the Khashoggi murder, although earlier this year it emerged that the FBI had thwarted the attempted kidnap in California of a young critic of the regime. Abdulrahman Al-Mutairi has been vocal in his criticism of Bin Salman.

Until and unless the world stands up to the paranoid court of the Crown Prince, it seems that freedom of speech, even in Western democracies, is being curtailed by fear. Khashoggi’s murder should have set alarm bells ringing in this respect, but the Trump regime’s apparent inaction in response to the murder of the Washington Post columnist seems to have emboldened Mohammad Bin Salman. If the kidnapping of the children of a prominent dissident does not force serious changes to international relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, then all critics of its brutal regime should be looking over their shoulders. It is anything but a progressive, enlightened state, no matter what its Crown Prince claims to the contrary.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.