Bill Law – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 11 Feb 2021 04:03:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Saudi Arabia: Can America’s Favorite Police State ever Change? Thu, 11 Feb 2021 05:02:40 +0000 ( Middle East Monitor ) – The phone call to the family lasted just one minute. It came 23 months after aid worker Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan had been arrested at the offices of the Red Crescent in Riyadh, where he worked co-ordinating rescue operations and emergency relief. He was held incommunicado despite numerous efforts by the family to speak with him and to see him. They were told repeatedly, “He is still under investigation.” No visitors and no phone calls allowed.

Then on 12 February last year, the phone rang at the family home. It was Abdulrahman. He couldn’t say anything other than that he was being held in the notorious Al Ha’ir Prison, a maximum-security centre for political prisoners just south of Riyadh. “My family could tell from his tone that he didn’t want to scare us,” his sister Areej told me. “He’s always thinking about others, about protecting others.”

A voice in the background was heard telling Abdulrahman, “Your minute is up.” Then the phone line went dead with no chance even to say goodbye or to ask when they might expect another call.

Since then there has been nothing; just a terrible, painful silence. In almost three years, there has been that one phone call that lasted for one minute.

The family has been given no reason for Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan’s arrest. No charges have been made against him. The Saudi Arabian authorities keep repeating, “He is still under investigation.” The family’s letters to the prison and to the Interior Ministry go unanswered. “We are faced with nothing but silence,” Areej told me on the phone from San Francisco where she lives. “All the doors are shut in our face.”

READ: Saudi Arabia commutes death sentences to 10 years imprisonment

She remembers the harrowing two weeks when the family heard nothing after her brother vanished on 12 March 2018. “He always stayed in touch and let us know his plans. We tried to call him and message him for days, but calls and messages were not going through.” The family was desperate for some word of him but people were afraid to speak. Finally, eyewitnesses to his arrest at the Red Crescent said that he had been taken by the security police.

Areej said that their fears about Abdulrahman being tortured had been confirmed by several witnesses. They know that he, like others caught up in the brutal Saudi security system, has suffered terrible abuse.

After Abdulrahman graduated from Notre Dame de Namur University in California, he decided to return to Saudi Arabia. “He wanted to go back to work there,” explained Areej. “He wanted to contribute, to help build the country.” What neither could know was that the country he went back to was, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, sliding rapidly into the sort of police state that Josef Stalin would have approved of.

Critics in the kingdom are arrested, held without charge for lengthy periods of time, abused, then brought to court and convicted on confessions obtained under torture; they are sentenced to long jail terms or beheaded. Abroad, those who have the temerity to criticise the crown prince are placed under surveillance, harassed, kidnapped, and, in the case of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered.

A protestor wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman with red painted hands next to people holding posters of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during the demonstration outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018. – Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, was killed on October 2, 2018 after a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork before marrying his Turkish fiancee. (Photo by Yasin AKGUL / AFP) (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images)

The web of terror that Bin Salman has woven is an intricate one. It includes the prince’s charitable foundation MiSK, which he established in 2011 with a stated goal of “creating opportunities to develop society and unleash individuals’ potential.” That’s a noble objective, and a visit to the MiSK website will show many worthwhile projects. However, as with so much to do with the crown prince there is a dark side to his foundation, one that emerges from a lawsuit filed by Saad Al-Jabri, a former senior Saudi intelligence officer who fled the kingdom in May 2017 a month before his boss Mohammed Bin Nayef was deposed and replaced as crown prince by Bin Salman.

In a civil lawsuit filed in Washington DC, Al-Jabri alleges that in addition to sending a hit squad to Canada to try and kill him a week or two after Khashoggi’s murder (the gang was turned away by Canadian border officials), the crown prince used his foundation more or less as a front in the US to recruit Saudi citizens and others to spy on dissidents. Two of those who were recruited worked for Twitter and supplied to the Saudi security service and Bin Salman’s right-hand man, Saud Al-Qahtani, the details of Saudi citizens inside the kingdom who were anonymously criticising aspects of the regime. It is Al-Qahtani who is heavily implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. He also ran a global malware surveillance operation and troll campaign that earned him the nickname Lord of the Flies.

Areej believes that her brother was one of those whose identity was revealed by the Twitter moles recruited by MiSK: “I was told by a person familiar with the US investigation that my brother’s [Twitter] account was targeted.” She told me that he was concerned about the levels of poverty in Saudi Arabia, the difficulties for young people finding jobs; Abdulrahman was troubled, too, by the prisoners of conscience being detained by the regime. “He doesn’t have an interest in politics, he just cares about people.” Caring about people was enough to make Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan an enemy of the state. MiSK, insisted Areej, “puts itself about as an organisation doing good things when it is doing creepy, unethical work.”

She hopes and believes that new US President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken will follow through on their stated commitment to defend human rights and challenge the impunity that has allowed abuse to flourish in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. She said that as she worries for her brother and her family in the kingdom, she herself is in fear. “It is strange for me not to feel safe in America but you never know if they are sending someone after you.” This, though, will not silence her. “I am not going to stop until my brother is safe and free.”

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

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Middle East Monitor

Is Trump Ally Saudi Arabia moving toward Tolerance or Fear? Mon, 25 May 2020 04:01:21 +0000 ( Middle East Monitor ) – 21 May marked UNESCO’s World Day for Cultural Diversity and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a heavy contributor of UNESCO, released a beautifully shot and edited one-minute video that concluded with the words: “Saudi Arabia’s diversity is a rich and evolving story.” The following day, Saudi media outlets released the story that the sons of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi have forgiven their father’s killers.

Jamal was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, 2018; he was then murdered and his body butchered. Five of his assassins have been sentenced to death, and another three to a total of 24 years in prison. The opaqueness of the Saudi court system prevents us from knowing who the men are, though we do know that Saud Al-Qahtani, a key figure in the plot, has escaped any punishment.

Where is Jamal Khashoggi?… – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The two stories juxtaposed – Saudi cultural diversity and the forgiveness of the sons for the murder of their father – capture, like postcards, the essence of a society being relentlessly twisted to fit a particular narrative: a country, bold and opening itself to the world, a place where diversity thrives and tolerant Islam is practiced. The narrative has been constructed, no expense spared, to satisfy the demands of the Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Like any good propaganda exercise, it has elements of truth woven into the big lie – Saudi Arabia does, for example, have spectacularly beautiful natural sites like Al-Ula, and the harsh Wahhabist version of Islam no longer has the ruling family’s stamp of approval.

Convicting eight men out of 11 charged from a murder squad that numbered 15, whilst exonerating MBS’ consiglieri Al-Qahtani, was in itself a feat of judicial necromancy. There was never any possibility that the crown prince, the man whom the Central Intelligence Agency, amongst many others, believe ordered the killing, would be held accountable.

Jamal’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz, on hearing the news of the sons’ forgiveness, tweeted: “His ambush and heinous murder does not have a statute of limitations and no one has the right to pardon his killers.” She has campaigned tirelessly and with great courage to keep Jamal’s story in the public domain, most recently in a bid to stop MBS from using Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to purchase Newcastle United football club.

The fiancee of murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi Hatice Cengiz during the session of US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Human Rights Subcommittee [Yasin Öztürk/Anadolu Agency]

Another brave young woman, Loujain Al-Hathloul, was arrested two years ago this month. Her crime was campaigning for women’s right to drive and ending the male guardianship system. Loujain’s family claim that she has been tortured in jail, an allegation that Amnesty International and other human rights organisations say is credible. Among those alleged to have tortured her is Al-Qahtani. Loujain’s brother told the Guardian that Al-Qahtani oversaw her abuse: “He sat in on one of the sessions. He told her: ‘I’ll kill you, cut you into pieces, throw you in the sewer system. But before that, I’ll rape you.’”

Loujain has been told that if she signs documents declaring that she has not been tortured she will be released. She refuses to do so, and remains in jail, along with thousands of others, protesters and prisoners of conscience, clerics and business people – anyone who may have had the temerity to question the wisdom and the leadership of the crown prince, anyone who may stand in the way of his financial interests, anyone who may have done nothing other than to arouse his suspicion that they could, possibly, present a threat.

Those outside the kingdom who, like Jamal have fled, are in danger too. The most recent case is that of Saad Aljabri who has been in Canada since 2017. On 26 March, two of his adult children, who remained in Saudi Arabia, were arrested along with his brother, and are being held in an unknown location. MBS hopes to use them as bait to force Aljabri back. He was a senior intelligence figure close to the now-jailed former minister of the interior and ex-crown prince, Muhammad Bin Nayef. Gerald M. Feierstein of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, stated in The New York Times: “The broader issue is that MBS is nervous about anybody who is outside of his control,” adding that because of Aljabri’s decades of intelligence work he would know “where the bodies are buried”.

MBS’ “modern” Saudi Arabia has the unmistakable whiff of Stalinism about it – the cult of personality around the great leader, the expensive propaganda films, the co-option or coercion of the families of his victims, the imprisonment and the abuse by his henchman of Loujain Al-Hathloul and the harassment of and threats to his critics and opponents outside the kingdom. Wrapped up in an insatiable quest for wealth and power, driven by a vast ego, doted on by his aged father King Salman, beset by the paranoiac’s fear of anyone seen to challenge his power, piece by piece, Mohammed Bin Salman builds his kingdom of fear.

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

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Sky News Australia: “Jamal Khashoggi’s son says family forgives journalist’s killers”