Omar and Sarah al Jabri were arrested by Saudi authorities in March in an apparent attempt to pressure their father, former intelligence official Saad al Jabri, to come home.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has joined the chorus of activists demanding that Saudi Arabia release the children of a dissident living in exile.
Omar and Sarah al Jabri, aged 21 and 20 respectively, were arrested in a raid by Saudi forces in Riyadh in March of this year.
Their father is Saad al Jabri, a former intelligence official, who fled to Canada in 2017 after a career serving as an advisor to former interior minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
Bin Nayef was ousted from his position in June 2017 by his young cousin Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who has since de facto ruled Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year Bin Nayef, alongside several other high ranking princes considered rivals to MBS, was placed under arrest.
The arrest of Omar and Sarah al Jabri occurred 10 days after the arrest of the princes in March.
Their father had fled just before the 2017 palace coup, with the pair trying to leave the country on the same day but were prevented from doing so by Saudi authorities at Riyadh airport.
While living alone, their bank accounts were frozen and they were subjected to regular rounds of questioning by authorities.
“They were kidnapped from their beds. I don’t even know if they are alive or dead,” Khalid al Jabri, the pair’s elder brother told the New York Times from Canada, where he is in exile with his father.
According to the Times of London, Saad’s brother Abdulrahman al Jabri, has also been arrested.
HRW believes their arrest in March was done to pressure their father into returning to the country.
“Saudi authorities are sinking to new lows in going after the families of former officials out of favor with the current leadership,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Saad al Jabri was once one of the most important figures in the Saudi security establishment, serving as the pointman for liaisons with Western intelligence services, such as MI6 and the CIA.
Western diplomats have credited al Jabri with foiling plots by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to carry out attacks globally.
Despite his clout among the West, the intelligence officer found a formidable foe in the form of MBS over his close relationship with Bin Nayef.
He was removed from his position after MBS got word of a private meeting between al Jabri and then CIA-chief John Brennan, of which the prince was not informed.
David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported that the prince’s feud with al Jabri is also part of a wider battle within the Saudi royal family between supporters of MBS and those associated with the sons of the late King Abdullah.
In 2016, then-US President Barack Obama helped tilt the balance in favour of Mohammed bin Salman by backing his ostensible reform agenda.
The ‘reformist’ prince
The strategy now seems dead in the water, at least as far as dissidents and activists within the country are concerned.
Religious activists, as well as civil society ones, now find themselves locked behind bars should they get on the wrong side of the prince.
That campaign of political repression was carried out in tandem with a process of cultural liberalisation, with Saudi Arabia granting women the right to drive, and cinemas opening, among other reforms implemented by MBS.
The liberalising agenda won MBS acclaim among Western leaders and media outlets alike until the the October 2018 murder and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Despite his reputation in the West being left in tatters, MBS has nevertheless pursued the same agenda of political repression as before the killing of Khashoggi with dissidents within the royal family and outside of it targeted.
“How can anyone describe the Saudi leadership as reformist while it’s arbitrarily detaining the children of former officials?” HRW’s Michael Page said.