A new report accuses Saudi Arabia of antagonising and blackmailing its citizens through social media and its consulates, months after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Turkey and killed.
US magazine The New Yorker published a report on Wednesday accusing the Saudi Crown Prince and his government of attempting to silence critics and people fleeing the country.
A dispatch written by Sarah Aziza describes how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - popularly known as MBS - follows a policy of intimidation, blackmailing and ‘luring’ Saudi citizens living abroad to the country’s consulates.
First-person accounts sound similar to the way the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was told to visit the Saudi consulate where he was then killed in October last year, allegedly by Saudi intelligence and secret service agents close to the crown prince.
MBS’s fight for his image
The Saudi crown prince is alleged to have authorised these measures against thousands of Saudi citizens living and studying abroad. While the Khashoggi killing caused worldwide headlines, Saudis cited in the report say that MBS’s campaign to silence and suppress critics is much more extensive.
Since MBS came to power as the country’s de facto leader, he has been ambitiously struggling to build an image of himself as a moderateand liberal prince who will bring political stability to neighbouring countries and turn the Kingdom into a hub attracting global investment.
However, his policiestowards the country’s citizens seem to prove differently.
Writing of his “obsessive need to control his reputation”, journalist Aziza spoke to a dissident woman living in Germany and whose name is given as Rana, one of thousands of ‘ordinary’ Saudi Arabians targeted around the world and harassed - mostly beyond the international community’s attention.
Thousands of Saudi students studying all over the world and awarded scholarships from the Kingdom are said to face similar pressures.
People fleeing Saudi Arabia
The number of people seeking asylum to leave Saudi Arabia has doubled since the Crown Prince took power. While there were 575cases in 2015, the number rose to more than 1,200 in 2017. Others have chosen self-exile, which follows a different visa process, meaning there are no exact figures available.
Rana toldthe reporter: “We’re not like the people escaping war in their country. When they come here [safe country], the bombs are behind them, they are safe. But not us. The danger follows us.”
Sources say that Saudi officials use social media to lure dissidents to Saudi consulates and is even threatening the asylum seekers’ families left behind in the kingdom.
The report references the experience of another unnamed Saudi woman, who arrived in Germany to apply for asylum and received a text message reporting that her Saudi Arabian bank account had been frozen and her passport, e-banking and residency permits revoked. She had no other option than return to the Kingdom to solve the issue.
The strategy is simple, use ordinary demands which need to be completed either on Saudi Arabian soil or in embassies in order to ensure face-to face meetings under Riyadh’s sovereignty. It is an approach reminiscent of the Khashoggi case.
Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi academic and scholar at New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, told The New Yorker: “What MBSwants is total control of the discourse. He has no tolerance for anyone who might challenge or even complicate his image.”
Weeks after Khashoggi killing, officials in Riyadh made concessions to Reutersthat the government of the Kingdom gave the permission to “act [to track dissidents] without going back to the leadership.”
It is a similar theme to that reported in The New Yorker, with MBS allegedly issuing ‘standing orders’ to negotiate the return of Saudi dissidents that live abroad.