Saudi Arabia: Transnational Repression Case Study
The Saudi Arabian government is perhaps the best known in the world for targeting its nationals abroad.
The Saudi Arabian government is perhaps the best known in the world for targeting its nationals abroad. The brutal 2018 murder and dismemberment of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the country’s Istanbul consulate brought transnational repression into popular awareness. Khashoggi’s killing was not an isolated event, but rather the outcome of an increasingly physical, targeted campaign against critics and former insiders, including members of the royal family, that has rapidly escalated since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his rise to power in 2015. This campaign has included extensive use of spyware, proxy punishment, detentions, assaults, and renditions in nine countries spanning the Middle East, Europe, North America, and Asia.1 Facilitating Riyadh’s extraterritorial efforts closer afield is a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) security agreement that sets broad parameters for cooperation against dissidents. The Saudi Arabian government’s transnational repression campaign also includes a uniquely gendered aspect; women fleeing gender-based repression in the country face characteristic transnational repression efforts from the state.
An escalating, personalized campaign
The Saudi transnational repression campaign is highly personalized, as befits an absolute monarchy where the royal house is identical to the state. Human rights defenders, journalists, former insiders, and online critics are vulnerable to charges of subverting that state, even if they do not explicitly speak out against the royal family. Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Minister of Defense in 2015 and Crown Prince in June 2017, and his rise to power tracks closely with the regime’s recent transnational repression efforts. This escalation also coincides with a purge against members of the royal family, government ministers, and businessmen that bin Salman launched soon after assuming the role of Crown Prince.2
Five of the 10 physical cases of Saudi transnational repression documented by Freedom House were carried out against former insiders. In addition to the Khashoggi assassination, two princes were rendered from France and the aide to a rival prince was rendered from Jordan. One of the princes disappeared after voicing support for a coup in a social media post; the other, Prince Sultan bin Turki II, was seeking reconciliation with bin Salman after suing the royal family for kidnapping him in the early 2000s. Bin Turki boarded a plane provided by the royal family in France, thinking he was heading to Cairo for a meeting; he was instead drugged and flown to Riyadh, and has not been been heard from since.3
As in other cases Freedom House has studied, the physical campaign against former insiders is built on indirect and nonphysical means of repression. In August 2020, former Saudi intelligence officer Saad al-Jabri, who lives in Canada, brought a lawsuit against bin Salman and others, alleging the Saudi government deployed spyware against him, plotted to kill him, and detained his family members in an effort to coerce him into returning to Saudi Arabia. In his lawsuit, al-Jabri alleges that a group of Saudi nationals stopped at the Canadian border were carrying the equipment needed to dismember a corpse.4 Al-Jabri’s allegations represent a familiar pattern of escalatory targeting, involving multiple means of repression against a single person.
There is ample evidence that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was the culmination of a longer process of escalating attacks against multiple targets. The mobile phone of Omar Abdulaziz, an activist and confidante of Khashoggi, was infected with Pegasus spyware, and one of his brothers was apparently coerced into asking Abdulaziz to cease his activism and return to Saudi Arabia. Abdulaziz did not comply, and two of his brothers were subsequently imprisoned along with several friends.5 Khashoggi himself was subjected to serious harassment on Twitter. His son, who lived in Saudi Arabia, was issued a travel ban that would have been lifted upon Khashoggi’s return to the country.6 Khashoggi asked his fiancée to await him outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul when he visited to procure marriage documents, to ensure that someone could alert the Turkish government if he did not return. He was murdered while she waited outside.7
Further intertwining the escalatory targeting of Abdulaziz and Khashoggi, details extracted from the former’s mobile phone may have played a role in the plot against the latter.8 At the time, the two critics were collaborating to combat the notorious mass of government-directed inauthentic accounts on Twitter.9 The Saudi regime closely controls expression within the country, and pays special attention to dissident activity on Twitter. Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser, oversaw Saudi Arabia’s “electronic army” or “electronic flies.”10 In an unprecedented tactic that displays the country’s wealth, and willingness to go to extreme ends, Saudi Arabian authorities even bribed two Saudi Twitter employees to assist in the surveillance of critics using the platform.11
Despite clear evidence of high-level government involvement in the targeting of Saudi nationals abroad, the international response has been muted, effectively sending a message of impunity to Saudi officials and others around the world. Within weeks of Khashoggi’s murder, the CIA confirmed that bin Salman ordered the assassination himself.12 Saudi Arabia’s democratic partners failed to hold the Saudi government or bin Salman to account, however. US president Donald Trump famously strayed from the conclusions of the American intelligence community, defending bin Salman.13 “I saved his ass,” Trump told a reporter. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”14
The United States implemented Global Magnitsky sanctions against 17 Saudi nationals for their role in killing Khashoggi, but bin Salman was not on the list.15 In July 2020, the UK implemented similar targeted sanctions against 20 Saudi officials involved in the assassination, including al-Qahtani, who intelligence agencies agree was central to orchestrating the operation,16 but not bin Salman.
Saudi Arabian courts sentenced five people to death for their role. The government dismissed–but did not try or convict–al-Qahtani from his media advisory role.17 Meanwhile, Saudi rights activists believe al-Qahtani is still managing the regime’s “electronic army.”18 Far from offering real justice, this partial show of accountability was a nod to international pressure that largely targeted lower-level operatives while avoiding repercussions at the top. Though the Khashoggi assassination certainly created a public-relations crisis for the Saudi regime, the lack of repercussions for the regime or for bin Salman means this personalized campaign of transnational repression will likely continue undeterred.
Freedom House found renditions of Saudi nationals from three Gulf states: Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There was clear cooperation on the part of the host states in all three cases which, when combined with known security agreements among GCC member states, illuminates the region’s institutionalized channels of transnational repression.
In addition to a 2004 antiterrorism agreement,19 a 2012 GCC joint security agreement specifies that signatories will “extradite persons in their territory who have been charged or convicted by competent authorities in any state party.” Such a broad provision, applied within a group of countries that routinely violate human rights through dubious legal proceedings, is ripe for abuse. In 2014, as the Kuwaiti parliament was considering the agreement’s ratification, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that Gulf states already engaged in problematic cooperation, prosecuting their own citizens for criticizing other GCC states and their leaders.20
The full extent of cooperation between Gulf states is unknown. As true monarchies, these governments are notable for their opaque operation,21 and possess poor human rights records. Evidence suggests informal and personal cooperation occurs beyond what is specified in formal security agreements. In 2017, previously secret handwritten agreements dating back to 2013 and 2014 between several Gulf states were made public. The 2013 agreement, signed by the Saudi king and the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait, prevents conferring asylum, refugee status, or nationality to individuals who oppose their homelands’ regimes, and bars support for “deviant” groups or “antagonistic” media.22
GCC cooperation has resulted in clear violations of human rights and international law. In May 2018, Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist, was arrested by Abu Dhabi police while attending university in the UAE. In what was effectively a kidnapping, al-Hathloul was immediately placed on a Saudi private jet bound for Saudi Arabia; she was then issued a travel ban, and was arrested that July.23 Her family says she was tortured in detention. In November 2020, al-Hathloul’s case was transferred to a court that normally hears terrorism and national security matters.
The Qatari government’s cooperation in the 2017 detention and rendition of Mohammad Abdullah al-Otaibi showed a willingness to openly violate asylum protections. Al-Otaibi, a human rights defender, fled Saudi Arabia less than five months after he was charged with illegally forming an organization in relation to his human rights work. He received refugee status in Qatar, and was preparing to resettle safely in Europe as part of a United Nations protection program within two months of receiving that status. In May 2017, he arrived at Doha’s airport to board his resettlement flight to Norway, when he was apprehended by Qatari security forces. He was transferred to Saudi Arabia four days later, and is now serving a 14-year prison sentence.24
In another case of targeting in transit, a Saudi poet and member of a tribe with historical claims to the throne was arrested at a Kuwaiti airport and rendered to Saudi Arabia. The Kuwaiti government was clear about the official nature of their cooperation: a tweet from their interior ministry confirmed the deportation, stating that it was undertaken at the Saudi government’s request, “under bilateral mutual security arrangements.”25
Gender-based transnational repression
Consistent with the personalized nature of Saudi repression and the central importance of the monarchy, transnational repression by the state reflects, and sometimes supports, control sought at the family level. The Saudi Arabian guardianship system requires that women receive permission from a male guardian to engage in many basic activities. Recent legal reforms have reduced the guardianship system’s scope, allowing women to obtain passports and travel abroad without their guardian’s permission, but guardianship practices remain deeply entrenched at a societal level.26
Guardianship has historically afforded a significant amount of control over freedom of movement. An official e-government app, Absher, included guardianship controls, notably allowing guardians to grant entry and exit visas from their mobile phones. Even when visa controls were loosened in August 2019 following criticism, the app was not immediately updated to reflect the changes.27 In parallel, the bin Salman-led government has used travel restrictions, likely numbering in the thousands, to control and coerce those they perceive as threats.28 Access to state documents while abroad, like those Khashoggi needed for his marriage, is another tool the Saudi government uses to control its citizens.
The severe gender-based repression in Saudi Arabia results in women featuring more prominently in the country’s transnational repression campaign than in other cases. Globally, women are less frequently the targets of transnational repression, and are more often collateral damage, used as leverage points in family targeting. However, 2 of the 10 physical cases of Saudi transnational repression documented by Freedom House involved women as targets, and there are many more instances where women are targeted in nonphysical ways. The gender component of the Saudi campaign may partially be due to familial patterns of control, but can also be attributed to the uniquely high profile of Saudi women's rights activists, which makes them targets of the state in their own right.
In one case of transnational repression identified by Freedom House, state and family repression overlapped. Dina Ali Lasloom fled Saudi Arabia in 2017 in an attempt to escape a forced marriage. While waiting for a connecting flight in the Philippines, Lasloom claimed that airport officials confiscated her passport and boarding pass, and detained her for 13 hours. Eventually her uncles arrived and she was forced–restrained by duct tape and screaming, according to an HRW report–onto a return flight bound for Saudi Arabia.29
The Saudi embassy in the Philippines said Lasloom’s rendition was a “family matter.” But while the details of Lasloom’s forced return and the role of Philippine authorities are murky, her rendition could not have occurred without the involvement of the Saudi state. The allegation that the Philippine authorities detained Lasloom and confiscated her passport points to the implementation of mobility controls by the Saudi authorities. By flagging or cancelling her passport, they could trigger Philippine intervention in her transit. Even if the event was instigated by a guardianship claim, the Saudi state is nevertheless extending its laws and authority beyond its own territory.
Moreover, the bin Salman-led government may have additional concrete and personal reasons to act in cases like Lasloom’s. The number of Saudi asylum seekers has more than doubled in the two years after bin Salman’s ascension to the role of Crown Prince.30 As described in the New Yorker, “The implicit critique of this exodus was enough to stoke the ire of the Crown Prince.”31 The New Yorker report paints a chilling picture of how women who fled repressive family environments became targets of state repression. The women profiled reported that their bank accounts were frozen and their national ID cards were revoked; they also faced harassment by progovernment social media accounts, interrogation and harassment of family and friends residing in Saudi Arabia, run-ins with apparent Saudi operatives, and harassment by the Saudi embassy. In other words, women who flee Saudi Arabia’s gender-based repression face many of the state’s characteristic transnational repression tools.
- 1. Freedom House documented physical cases of transnational repression in eight countries, as well as “everyday” forms of transnational repression in a ninth country.
- 2. GC, “The Rise of Muhammad bin Salman,” Economist, November 14, 2017, https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2017/11/14/the-rise-of…; Margherita Stancati and Summer Said, “Saudi Arabian Arrest Wave Shows Crown Prince’s Bid to Control Change,” Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabian-arrest-wave-shows-crown-prin….
- 3. Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, “‘This Plane Is Not Going to Land in Cairo:’ Saudi Prince Sultan Boarded a Flight in Paris. Then, He Disappeared,” Vanity Fair, August 25, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/08/how-saudi-prince-sultan-disappe…; Ayman M. Mohyeldin, “No One Is Safe: How Saudi Arabia Makes Dissidents Disappear,” Vanity Fair, July 29, 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/07/how-saudi-arabia-makes-dissiden….
- 4. Spencer S. Hsu and Shane Harris, “Former Saudi Intelligence Officer Accuses Crown Prince of Ordering His Assassination in Canada,” Washington Post, August 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/former-saudi-intellig…; David Ignatius, “This Former Intelligence Official Was a Hero. He’s Now the Target of a Brutal Campaign by MBS,” Washington Post, May 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/28/this-former-intellig….
- 5. Ayman M. Mohyeldin, “No One Is Safe: How Saudi Arabia Makes Dissidents Disappear,” Vanity Fair, July 29, 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/07/how-saudi-arabia-makes-dissiden…; Bill Marczak et al., “The Kingdom Came to Canada: How Saudi-Linked Digital Espionage Reached Canadian Soil,” Citizen Lab, October 1, 2018, https://citizenlab.ca/2018/10/the-kingdom-came-to-canada-how-saudi-link….
- 6. David Ignatius, “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Uses Travel Restrictions to Consolidate Power,” Washington Post, June 18, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/18/saudi-arabias-crown-….
- 7. “Jamal Khashoggi: All You Need to Know About Saudi Journalist's Death,” British Broadcasting Corporation, July 2, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45812399.
- 8. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Khashoggi Killing: UN Human Rights Expert Says Saudi Arabia Is Responsible for ‘Premeditated Execution,’” June 19, 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24713; Ayman M. Mohyeldin, “No One Is Safe: How Saudi Arabia Makes Dissidents Disappear,” Vanity Fair, July 29, 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/07/how-saudi-arabia-makes-dissiden…; Omar Abdulaziz, “Saudi Spies Hacked My Phone and Tried to Stop My Activism. I Won’t Stop Fighting,” Washington Post, November 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/11/14/saudi-spies-hacked-m….
- 9. Katie Benner et al., “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” New York Times, October 20, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/20/us/politics/saudi-image-campaign-twi…; Omar Abdulaziz, “Saudi Spies Hacked My Phone and Tried to Stop My Activism. I Won’t Stop Fighting,” Washington Post, November 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/11/14/saudi-spies-hacked-m….
- 10. Freedom House, “Saudi Arabia,” Freedom on the Net, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/country/saudi-arabia/freedom-net/2020; Katie Benner et al., “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” New York Times, October 20, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/20/us/politics/saudi-image-campaign-twi….
- 11. Kate Conger et al., “Former Twitter Employees Charged with Spying for Saudi Arabia,” New York Times, November 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/technology/twitter-saudi-arabia-spie….
- 12. Shane Harris, Greg Miller, and Josh Dawsey, “CIA Concludes Saudi Crown Prince Ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s Assassination,” Washington Post, November 16, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cia-concludes-sa….
- 13. Sonam Sheth and John Haltiwanger, “‘I saved his a--:’ Trump Boasted That He Protected Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman After Jamal Khashoggi's Brutal Murder, Woodward's New Book Says,” Business Insider, September 10, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-woodward-i-saved-his-ass-mbs-khas….
- 14. Sonam Sheth and John Haltiwanger, “‘I saved his a--:’ Trump Boasted That He Protected Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman After Jamal Khashoggi's Brutal Murder, Woodward's New Book Says.”
- 15. US Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions 17 Individuals for Their Roles in the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” November 15, 2018, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm547.
- 16. Martin Chulov, “Saud al-Qahtani: Who Is Fixer Cleared by Saudis over Khashoggi Murder?,” Guardian, December 23, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/23/saud-al-qahtani-saudi-fix….
- 17. Kareem Fahim and Sarah Dadouch, “Saudi Arabia Says Five Sentenced to Death in Killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” Washington Post, December 23, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/saudi-arabia-says-five…; Katie Benner et al., “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” New York Times, October 20, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/20/us/politics/saudi-image-campaign-twi…; Martin Chulov, “Saud al-Qahtani: Who Is Fixer Cleared by Saudis over Khashoggi Murder?,” Guardian, December 23, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/23/saud-al-qahtani-saudi-fix….
- 18. Freedom House, “Saudi Arabia,” Freedom on the Net, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/country/saudi-arabia/freedom-net/2020; Ben Hubbard, “The Rise and Fall of M.B.S.’s Digital Henchman,” New York Times, March 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/sunday-review/mbs-hacking.html.
- 19. Fadiya al-Zaabi, “GCC Countries Sign Landmark Counterterrorism Agreement,” Arab News, May 5, 2004, https://www.arabnews.com/node/248835.
- 20. Human Rights Watch, “GCC: Joint Security Agreement Imperils Rights,” April 26, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/26/gcc-joint-security-agreement-imperi….
- 21. Freedom House, “Countries and Territories,” accessed December 18, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores.
- 22. Jim Sciutto and Jeremy Herb, “Exclusive: The Secret Documents That Help Explain the Qatar Crisis,” CNN, July 10, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/07/10/politics/secret-documents-qatar-crisis-g…; turner.com, “Translation of Agreements,” accessed December 18, 2020, http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2017/images/07/10/translation.of.agreement…; Melissa Carlson and Barbara Koremenos, “Cooperation Failure or Secret Collusion? Absolute Monarchs and Informal Cooperation,” Review of International Organizations, September 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344086647_Cooperation_Failure_…, https://www.melissaannecarlson.com/uploads/8/4/7/2/84723774/rio_manuscr….
- 23. Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Activist Who Fought for Women’s Right to Drive Is Sent to Terrorism Court,” New York Times, November 25, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/25/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-loujai….
- 24. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, “Opinion No. 68/2018 Concerning Mohammad Abdullah al-Otaibi (Saudi Arabia),” UN Human Rights Council, April 3, 2019, A/HRC/WGAD/2018/68; Amnesty International, “Saudi Arabia: First Human Rights Defenders Sentenced Under Leadership of ‘Reformer’ Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman,” January 25, 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/01/saudi-arabia-first-human….
- 25. Ayman M. Mohyeldin, “No One Is Safe: How Saudi Arabia Makes Dissidents Disappear,” Vanity Fair, July 29, 2019, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/07/how-saudi-arabia-makes-dissiden…; Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia: Reveal Young Poet’s Whereabouts,” June 13, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/13/saudi-arabia-reveal-young-poets-whe…; Amnesty International, “Urgent Action: Qatari National Arbitrarily Held Incommunicado,” June 18, 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE2385812018ENGLISH.pdf.
- 26. Freedom House, “Saudi Arabia,” Freedom in the World, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/country/saudi-arabia/freedom-world/2020.
- 27. Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia: Travel Restrictions on Saudi Women Lifted,” August 22, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/22/saudi-arabia-travel-restrictions-sa…. Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia’s Absher App: Controlling Women’s Travel While Offering Government Services,” May 6, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/06/saudi-arabias-absher-app-controllin…; Hillary Leung, “What to Know About Absher, Saudi Arabia's Controversial ‘Woman-Tracking’ App,” Time, February 19, 2019, https://time.com/5532221/absher-saudi-arabia-what-to-know/.
- 28. David Ignatius, “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Uses Travel Restrictions to Consolidate Power,” Washington Post, June 18, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/18/saudi-arabias-crown-….
- 29. Human Rights Watch, “Fleeing Woman Returned to Saudi Arabia Against Her Will,” April 14, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/14/fleeing-woman-returned-saudi-arabia…; “Flying Without a Man: The Mysterious Case of Dina Ali,” British Broadcasting Corporation, June 1, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40105983.
- 30. Donna Abu-Nasr and Vivian Nereim, “What Damage Control Looks Like in Saudi Arabia,” Bloomberg, October 18, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-18/the-khashoggi-case-a….
- 31. Sarah Aziza, “The Saudi Government’s Global Campaign to Silence Its Critics,” New Yorker, January 15, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/the-saudi-governments-global-ca….
Visit the main report page for Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: The Global Scale and Scope of Transnational Repression.