At first glance, it may not seem as though Saudi university students, disgruntled princes, Islamists, and teenage girls have much in common. But members of all these groups are leaving Saudi Arabia and seeking asylum in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Their numbers may be modest compared with those of the refugees who have fled Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria in the past two decades, but these asylum seekers are a political problem for the kingdom—one that its supposedly modernizing young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), can no longer ignore.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 815 Saudi citizens applied for asylum in 2017, a 318 percent increase from 2012. And that’s not counting the unofficial asylum seekers—those living abroad in a state of self-exile, delaying their return to the country for fear of repression. The murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of them.

This new, outspoken

Finish reading this article for free.

Enter your email and we'll send a paywall-free link directly to your inbox.

In addition to your unlocked article, you will receive our flagship weekly newsletter Foreign Affairs This Week, as well as occasional updates and offers from Foreign Affairs. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more information, visit our user agreement and privacy policy.


Get unlimited access to all Foreign Affairs. Subscribe now.

Are you already a subscriber? Sign in.