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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 Saudi diaspora poses several problems for the kingdom. For one, Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars on scholarships in order to lessen its dependency on foreign labor; it cannot then afford to lose its highly educated young citizens to exile abroad. The diaspora is also creating an image issue: behind every asylum seeker is a story of injustice and repression that punctures the official narrative about the new, modern Saudi Arabia, flush with economic opportunity. For this reason among others, asylum seekers strain Saudi Arabia’s relationships with their host governments, who are all allies and partners of the regime in Riyadh.
MBS has trained particular resources and attention on young Saudis, promoting artistic and entrepreneurial initiatives designed to open the economy and reward youth creativity and talent. He even started an initiative, the Misk Foundation, dedicated to empowering youth to participate in the Saudi economy. But the very demographic MBS courts produces the majority of asylum seekers leaving the country. These newer exiles join the many students who obtained government scholarships to study in Europe and the United States during King Abdullah’s reign from 2005 to 2015 and failed to return to build the “new Saudi Arabia” afterward. By the time MBS had consolidated his power and become the new face of Saudi Arabia in 2017, many of those students were inclined to be skeptical of the crown prince’s promises of creativity, opportunity, and prosperity. They feared repression if they returned to Saudi Arabia—especially if they had taken advantage of freedoms abroad to criticize the regime and expose its shortcomings.
Their fears were well-grounded, as the Saudi regime isn’t hard to provoke. A tweet, a WhatsApp message, or participation in an academic or policy event deemed hostile to the regime is all it might take to wind up on a suspect list in MBS’ Saudi Arabia. The regime maintains tight control over its citizens abroad, watching their every move with developed surveillance technology. The scandal of pervasive surveillance was exposed after the Khashoggi murder, when it became public knowledge that the regime had hacked the phone of a young activist, Omar al-Zahrani, in Canada and recorded his communication with the slain journalist.
Young, educated asylum seekers undermine Saudi propaganda about the new opportunities on offer in the kingdom. And exiled princes challenge the myth of solidarity and cohesion in the royal family. The latter image has eroded since the purge of November 2017, when MBS detained high-ranking princes, including Alwaleed bin Talal and Mutaib bin Abdullah, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. The flight of a handful of princes who have taken up residence in Europe underlines the fact that under the new crown prince, the regime has changed its strategy from buying off problematic princes to threatening them with humiliating detention.
Young, educated asylum seekers undermine Saudi propaganda about the new opportunities on offer in the kingdom.
Prince Khalid bin Farhan al-Saud is one example of a dissident prince who has eroded the regime’s power from afar. From exile in Germany, Prince Khalid announced his defection in 2013 and started a media campaign to undermine MBS. In interviews with the BBC and other news organizations that the regime considers hostile, Prince Khalid accused the royal family of hypocrisy for enjoying prohibited pleasures such as drinking alcohol and partying while denying them to ordinary citizens, and he characterized King Salman as a “Machiavellian monarch.” After the Khashoggi murder, Prince Khalid announced that he had escaped from a kidnapping attempt in Germany, allegedly ordered by the crown prince.
Exiled princes tend not to come from the core House of Saud lineage that has ruled the kingdom since 1933. But in a family dynasty in which the king is supposed to be primus inter pares, the first among equals, even the defection of a minor prince fractures the foundation of dynastic rule. Now that it is clear that MBS is willing to punish, kidnap, and humiliate defectors, exile has become the only solution for disgruntled princes. Prince Khalid was lucky. Other princes, such as Saif al-Islam al-Saud and Sultan ibn Turki al-Saud, were kidnapped from Europe and returned to Saudi Arabia and have not been seen since.
The newest emerging category of Saudi exiles are the so-called runaway girls. More than 1,000 girls between the ages of 18 and 25 have left Saudi Arabia under MBS, fleeing the strict control—and in some cases, physical and sexual abuse—their guardians impose on them. Their difficult journeys risk bringing even more restrictions and punishments upon them if they are forced to go back to Saudi Arabia.
A recent high-profile case has drawn international attention to the runaway girls. On January 5, 2019, 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun was detained at the Bangkok airport while on her way to seek asylum in Australia. Qunun spent several days in a hotel room at the airport before Canada granted her asylum. Without the support of many Saudi and non-Saudi activists, she might have shared the fate of other, less fortunate runaway girls: repatriation to the kingdom against her will. The regime now acknowledges this problem to the extent that it allowed the airing of debates on the issue in state-sponsored media after Qunun fled the country. Public discussion of the problem may imply that the government is starting to take it seriously; it may also be a way for the government to deflect the crisis and shift the blame to the girls’ parents or guardians.
Saudi exiles are extremely diverse in their political orientations but united in their grievances against the kingdom under MBS: restricted speech, corruption, the marginalization of women and minorities, and abuses of human rights. The latter concern dominated an opposition conference, hosted by the new forum Diwan London, in December 2018. Among the participants were the Washington-based activist Hala al-Dosari, now Jamal Khashoggi fellow at The Washington Post; the feminist activists Amani al-Ahmadi and Amani al-Issa; the newly exiled Islamists Sultan al-Abdali, Muhammad al-Omari, Ahmad bin Rashid al-Said, and Mohammed al-Qahtani; and the Shiite activist Fuad Ibrahim. They were joined by exiles who had fled the kingdom in the 1990s, such as the physics professor Muhammad al-Massari. All presented their visions for a different Saudi Arabia. Some advocated practical measures to stop repression and detentions; others called for the overthrow of the regime.
The regime’s worst nightmare is a critical mass of dissidents abroad—especially high-profile, articulate ones.
So far, neither Saudi Arabia nor the host governments have taken asylum seekers seriously as a political force. But as their numbers grow and they begin to form a united front, these exiles will become an increasing embarrassment to the regime and its allies. Many are now regular commentators for the global news media, analyzing Saudi affairs in ways that are bound to shift public opinion against the regime. For example, the detained Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul has a brother, Walid, in the United States and a sister, Alya, in Belgium, both of whom campaign for her release and regularly inform the news media about the abuse and torture to which she is subjected. Vigorous reporting by human rights organizations, UN agencies, and the global news media makes it harder for host countries to deny these Saudis asylum.
In the past, Saudi Arabia depended on its allies to deport its exiles. It considers granting them asylum an act of betrayal. Take Canada, for example, whose diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia suffered owing to its criticisms of the regime’s human rights abuses and its hosting of outspoken exiles such as Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and several years in prison for setting up a liberal Internet forum. Zahrani is also in Canada, together with almost 200 other young asylum seekers. The regime fears that exiles who gain asylum will encourage others to flee. Its worst nightmare is a critical mass of dissidents abroad—especially high-profile, articulate ones. Khashoggi’s murder attests to the policy of zero tolerance for such critical voices abroad: they are treated not as nuisances but as national security threats. The more exiles arrive in the lands of the crown prince’s best allies and supporters, the more Riyadh will pressure the host governments to play down their numbers and deny them refuge.
Even after the global outrage following the murder of Khashoggi, Saudi repression remains fierce, and MBS continues to make enemies. He will not be able to buy off, intimidate, or eliminate all of them, and the diaspora will continue to grow. But he may try to stem the exodus, for example, by banning activists and dissidents from travel—keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.
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