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Smartphone snitches are welcome in Saudi's surveillance society

Shoppers check their smartphones whilst waiting for transport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 2 December 2016 [Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images]
Shoppers check their smartphones whilst waiting for transport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 2 December 2016 [Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

Smartphone technology has revolutionised our lives in many ways that go well beyond telephone calls for the millions who use them. Many of us have become amateur photographers, capturing those special moments which can be uploaded onto social networks within seconds.

As is often the case these days, though, there is also a downside to this technology; our phones can be used against us in sinister, surveillance societies where paranoia and suspicion are the order of the day. In particular, I'm thinking of the seemingly unaccountable world inhabited by the security services in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where thousands of political prisoners are detained with neither formal charge nor trial following spurious allegations and equally specious evidence.

If you think this is of no concern to you, please think again, because if you've ever had an innocent meet and greet with a political leader; brushed shoulders with a significant Muslim scholar; or even had a brief encounter with a human rights activist, and a photographic record of such a meeting exists, the latter could be used in evidence against you. You may have taken the ubiquitous selfie, or someone else has captured that special moment. Either way, it has probably ended up on social media somewhere, and the genie is out of the bottle. Unwittingly, you will have put yourself — or others — at risk.

In recent weeks I've raised the issue of 82-year-old Dr Ahmed Farid Moustapha, a retired architect of distinction and renown in Saudi Arabia who was forcibly disappeared from his home in Madinah during Ramadan 2020. He is a personal friend and mentor of mine, and so to highlight his plight I launched a modest campaign, which has been supported in part by human rights group SANAD.

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Friends and family of Dr Moustapha in the Kingdom are too afraid to talk about him and so, like thousands of others, his plight is largely unknown. Until now. Mercifully, I live in Britain where I have the freedom to raise his case in the media. And I have it on good authority that this has become a minor irritation to those in power in Riyadh.

In recent days, in order to silence me, "friends and contacts in Saudi and Egypt" have reached out to advise me, "in confidence", that Dr Moustapha is "a bad man who has funded terrorism." That's a very serious allegation. Where's the evidence? Who did he fund? Who were the victims?

I've even been told that his file held by the Saudi intelligence service contains selfies and footage taken by others that have found its way onto social media. The photographs I've been shown — some of which I share with you today — don't prove anything, and certainly aren't sinister. They show simply that my dear friend is a well-connected and well-travelled businessman who attended many conferences abroad.

Incredibly, this "evidence" that Dr Moustapha "funds terrorism" includes a photograph of him sitting next to distinguished Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who is regarded as the intellectual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, although he is not a member. The sheikh was a leading adviser during the Arab Spring uprisings which threatened to deliver democracy into the Middle East. Small wonder that he is reviled by those who fear democracy most in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Another "incriminating photograph" shows Dr Moustapha engaged in conversation during a brief encounter with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Having met both well-known figures, and with photographs to prove it, should I be concerned? In the ever-changing dynamics in the Middle East, friendly relations loom between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, so where will that leave Dr Moustapha? Will the Erdogan photo be shredded, or simply filed away for use another day?

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Other images show him meeting and greeting members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation outlawed in the same triumvirate — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — as well as Russia, but hosted openly in countries around the world. Launched in 1928 as an apolitical self-help group concerned with charity and religious reform, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown to be one of the world's most influential Islamist political movements, inspiring political parties throughout the Middle East, including Palestine, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. It has had a roller-coaster existence and, following the 2013 military coup which saw Egypt's first-ever democratically elected leader, the late President Mohamed Morsi, overthrown and arrested, thousands of exiled members were given a safe haven in Erdogan's Turkey.

Dr Moustapha was born in Egypt, and has expressed his dismay publicly at the demonisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has also been vocal about other injustices in the region, including the arrest and detention without trial of the influential Muslim academic and revered scholar Sheikh Salman Al-Ouda in Saudi Arabia. If you support human rights, including the right to a fair trial and justice, you would also express the same sentiments regardless of faith, nationality or political beliefs.

Dr Moustapha's CV reveals him to be an academic heavyweight who has used his wealth to found and fund a number of architectural, educational and engineering enterprises, including the College of Architecture and Planning at King Faisal University in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. His architecture and design company is one of the oldest consulting offices in the Kingdom. Founded in 1967 in Riyadh, it was created to promote business advisory design and oversee the implementation of many educational projects, including university and private buildings.

In short, Dr Ahmed Farid Moustapha is a great man who has touched many lives in a positive way and I feel honour bound to tell you this, because very few others will, thanks to the wicked surveillance society of fear created in many Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia. Such surveillance now extends to public information campaigns in the Kingdom urging Saudi citizens to call a hotline to inform on friends, neighbours and anyone else suspected of supporting groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. It doesn't matter if the call is fake, malicious or based purely on suspicion, and the consequences can be hugely damaging; even fatal.

For the record, former British Prime Minister David Cameron was strong-armed by the UAE in 2015 to investigate and expose the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. The desired conclusion was known before the investigation even started. Embarrassingly for the Conservative leader, the Brotherhood was given a clean bill of health, and the report was gathering dust on a Downing Street shelf until public and political pressure forced its publication. Cameron feared that the decision not to ban the organisation in Britain would have a diplomatic or business price to pay following pressure from… you've guessed it: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

READ: UAE stops Yemen boxing team from attending Asian Championship

Saudi Arabia's de facto leader is Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Like his Arab allies, he is a prickly, egotistical character who prefers to silence his critics instead of answering them, as the Saudi-born dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi learned to his cost in 2018.

Despite his dislike of free speech, Bin Salman wants to do business in the West, where that basic human right is still more or less allowed. Having established the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the prince has his sights set on owning the English Premier League football club Newcastle United, which I've supported since I was a child. It was at the club's iconic home, St James' Park in the centre of Newcastle, that I launched my campaign with SANAD to raise awareness about Dr Moustapha.

A quick check on SANAD's Twitter account reveals that there are many Saudi prisoners of conscience including women. What happened to Bin Salman's pledge to roll out women-friendly reforms? Obviously, in his eyes, that means locking up those women who dare to answer back in the traditionally patriarchal society.

Like many Newcastle fans, I would welcome the sort of investment that a Saudi takeover could offer; it would do wonders for the club. What it won't do, though, is buy the silence of the fans when it comes to universal human rights and the creation of places governed by fear and intimidation.

As a child, I was brought up to believe that "snitching" or "grassing" on people is generally despicable. Telling tales would earn a rebuke from teachers and being known as a snitch meant a loss of respect and integrity. I believe that's an honourable basic code in a decent society.

Please do not confuse the noble act of whistleblowing and reporting a serious crime with petty tittle-tattle and spying on your neighbours. The latter will create widespread division and suspicion in society. Governments who turn their citizens into snitches through fear, cash or other incentives will end up creating a society where respect for our fellow men and women is lost.

Smartphone photographs and videos are being used as incontrovertible proof of guilt, even if they aren't produced as evidence in court. As most political prisoners would surely testify, were they are free to do so, the Saudi Kingdom does not believe in holding fair trials in public. Even defence lawyers are rare, and are often excluded from the proceedings.

In the coming year alone, an estimated one trillion photos will be taken on smartphones, millions of them in the Arab world. The European Travel Commission reckons that more than 125 million people in the Middle East have online access, and more than 53 million use social networks. According to Google's "Our Mobile Planet" survey, the UAE leads the world in smartphone adoption rates, with 73.8 per cent of its population owning one, even more than the notoriously tech-addicted South Korea (73 per cent). Saudi Arabia comes in third, with 72.8 per cent.

However, next time you want to upload an image of yourself alongside a well-known face, consider the possible consequences. Once it's in the public domain, it's gone; out of your control; and forever. That selfie could end up being used in evidence against you one day. Just think about that for one moment. And then spare a thought and a prayer for Dr Ahmed Farid Moustapha and the other political prisoners being held in the infamous Saudi Arabian prison system.

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

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