MBS ‘clampdown’ fuels surge in numbers of Saudi refugees

Dawn was breaking in Sydney when Nourah’s phone rang. “I need you to help me. I need you to speak to people on my behalf,” the 20-year-old Saudi asylum-seeker recalled the caller saying.

The woman — a Saudi teen who identified herself as Rahaf al-Qunun — explained to Nourah that her passport had been confiscated at a Bangkok airport, and Thai authorities were threatening to deport her. Qunun’s story captured international attention last month with her impassioned Twitter plea for asylum.

While Qunun barricaded herself in an airport hotel room to prevent her deportation, Nourah — who declined to reveal her full name for security reasons — was pacing up and down a public park in Sydney, making calls to Western news outlets. She had never met Qunun, but Nourah had recently also fled Saudi Arabia. She didn’t need to know who Qunun was, she said, to understand the urgency of her situation. Within days, Qunun was granted asylum in Canada.

“I picked up my phone and spoke to people about Rahaf (al-Qunun) because I am in a free country, a country that wasn’t going to jail me because of what I was saying on the phone,” Nourah told CNN.

“The case wasn’t about Rahaf. It was about all Saudi women. If any Saudi woman had asked me for help, I would have done the same thing, with the same determination,” she said.

For 72 hours, Nourah and two other Saudi women posted to social media and, without identifying themselves, gave media interviews. They tweeted about Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship laws, writing that the legal code granted men considerable impunity, making widespread the alleged domestic abuse that Qunun said she was escaping.

It’s made asylum “a very popular idea in Saudi Arabia,” according to Nourah. The lure of asylum-seeking has been compounded, activists and analysts say, by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s campaign to stamp out dissent in the kingdom. In recent years, he has ordered the rounding up of scores of high-profile clerics, analysts, businessmen and princes, as well as women’s rights defenders who were allegedly tortured and who authorities accuse of “suspicious contact” with foreign entities.

The Saudi government has denied the allegations of torture and said it does not “condone, promote or allow the use of torture.”

The prince has been under intense international scrutiny after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last October. Saudi Arabia has described it as a botched attempt to return the critic to Saudi Arabia, and said the killers would be brought to justice.

But for some Saudis abroad, said Saudi activist Yahya Assiri, it underscored what they already suspected: that the kingdom and its foreign offices were off-limits to critics.

“It’s absolutely impossible that I would ever go to the Saudi Embassy,” the London-based dissident told CNN shortly after news of Khashoggi’s disappearance broke. “I refused to go before, and the Khashoggi situation has made my decision even clearer.”

In 2013, Assiri, a former member of the Saudi Royal Air Force, went to the United Kingdom to study human rights. He applied for asylum a year later, and he is now a Saudi refugee. His status allows him to steer clear of Saudi officials, he said, eliminating the risk taken by Khashoggi on October 2, when he entered his country’s consulate for paperwork that would allow him to marry and never re-emerged.

Saudi refugees on the rise

The number of Saudi refugees globally has increased in recent years. In 1993, the first year with recorded cases of Saudi asylum-seekers, there were seven Saudi refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). They took up residence in Jordan, Greece and Sweden.

According to the UNHCR’s latest public records, Saudi refugees and asylum-seekers totaled 2,392 in 2017. Five countries hosted the majority of these Saudis: the United States (1,143), Canada (453), Australia (191), the United Kingdom (184) and Germany (147).

The figure ebbed and flowed from 1993 onwards. It spiked in 2006 and tapered in ensuing years. The number of Saudi refugees rose again after the 2011 Arab Spring, which spurred unrest in the kingdom’s eastern province.

But the sharpest increase in Saudi refugees and asylum-seekers occured after 2015, the year Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then 29, emerged in the kingdom’s political scene.

“You have people fleeing political repression, and that’s very easily tied to MBS and what he’s done. And I think that the number (of refugees and asylum-seekers) you’re seeing here is indicative of that,” Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle told CNN.

Saudi authorities did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

In comparison to war-torn countries in the region, such as Syria, the overall numbers are unremarkable. But analysts and activists point to a relatively sharp rise apparently brought on by the kingdom’s rapidly changing political environment.

“Certainly the political space and the space for freedoms was already very tight, and it’s gotten much tighter over the last two years. So certainly the environment would provoke more Saudis to go abroad,” said Ali Shihabi, a supporter of Mohammed bin Salman and the founder of The Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “But it’s statistically insignificant.”

Shihabi attributed the crown prince’s tightening of political freedom as a reining in of an “increasingly polarized society” in Saudi Arabia in order to introduce “very dramatic change.”

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power began with his father’s ascent to the throne in January 2015. King Salman appointed the prince (known by his initials MBS) defense minister in January 2015, and later that year, to the post of deputy crown prince. MBS’s rapid consolidation of power in the Saudi royal court and government culminated with his elevation to crown prince in June 2017. He is widely considered the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.

During this period, the prince spearheaded an ambitious economic and social reform program, known as Vision 2030, aiming to wean the economy off its dependency on oil production. In addition to a series of robust privatization measures, Vision 2030 relaxed the kingdom’s ultra-conservative social code. A ban on women’s driving was lifted, male guardianship rules were loosened, and the kingdom hosted its first concerts and opened its first movie cinemas. The string of reforms earned the praise of many international pundits and Western leaders and captured global headlines.

The prince’s supporters hailed the kingdom’s shake-up of a system in which clerics wielded considerable influence, and where the economy was riddled with bureaucratic bottlenecks. But even as MBS regaled global business leaders with his ambitious plans in weekslong tours of Western cities, his critics pointed to a bleaker side of the story.

Some months after MBS’s appointment as crown prince, insider-turned-critic Khashoggi wrote his first Washington Post opinion piece from his self-imposed exile in Washington.

“(MBS) spoke of making our country more open and tolerant and promised that he would address the things that hold back our progress, such as the ban on women driving,” wrote Khashoggi in a September 2017 column. “But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests.”

He then added, ominously: “It anguishes me to speak with other Saudi friends in Istanbul and London who are also in self-exile. There are at least seven of us — are we going to be the core of a Saudi diaspora?”

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of Saudi refugees and asylum seekers rose by 52% to 1,936, compared to an average year-on-year increase of around 13% over the preceding decade. In 2017, the number increased 23.55% to 2,392.

The trend of Saudis seeking refuge has grown despite risks of interception by Saudi authorities.

Analysts, self-exiled critics and women who have fled Saudi Arabia say that many people leaving the kingdom fear that other countries’ governments may force their return.

In Kuwait, authorities said they deported a Qatari-Saudi dual national, Nawaf al-Rasheed, at the request of the kingdom. He was reportedly a resident of Qatar and was in Kuwait on a visit.

In the airport in Doha, Qatar, Saudi asylum-seeker and rights activist Mohammad al-Otaibi was forcibly returned to the kingdom when he tried to fly with his wife to Norway in May, according to Amnesty International. Otaibi was presented with a list of charges including “dividing public opinion,” Amnesty International said, and eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison.

“(Saudi Arabia) does not like the optics of its citizens fleeing, because it really cuts into the PR campaign to portray Saudi Arabia as modernizing and improving,” said HRW’s Coogle. There is an “acute and clear danger that Saudi asylum-seekers face,” he added.

Coogle says he has been receiving requests from Saudis for asylum support letters — statements that vouch for the credibility of the asylum-seekers — on a nearly bimonthly basis since 2016. He says that requests for asylum support were less frequent before 2016.

Fleeing the kingdom to seek asylum is more complicated for Saudi women, who need the permission of a male guardian to travel. Several have slipped away from their fathers and guardians while on family vacation abroad. Even then, they risk being forcibly repatriated by governments acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia.

In addition to restrictions on travel, women in the kingdom cannot marry, divorce, get a job or have elective surgery without the permission of a male guardian, usually the woman’s father or husband, and sometimes their son.

In 2017, young Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom attempted to flee her family from Kuwait. She was in transit at Manila airport on her way to Australia when she was stopped by Philippine immigration officials. Lasloom had pleaded with authorities not to deport her back to her family because she said she feared they would kill her.

Later, the Saudi Embassy in Manila said she “had returned with her relatives to the homeland,” and called the case a “family matter.”

Amani al-Ahmadi, Saudi Arabia human rights officer at Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, herself fled the kingdom in 2014. She said her escape was “hectic but worth it.”

“We were lucky enough to be advised by the US Embassy,” Ahmadi, whose mother is a US citizen, told CNN. “Even if it was just for a layover, they knew that the chances of being hunted down in a different airport … was a very much likely possibility.”

Saudi Arabia has not responded to CNN’s request for comment about the women’s cases.

Saudi men have also been part of the growing numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers in the kingdom.

Lawyer Taha al-Hajji arrived in Germany in 2016 among tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. He had been representing activists in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province of Qatif, where predominantly Shia protesters have, in recent years, demonstrated against perceived discrimination against their religious sect in the Sunni-ruled country.

Hajji said his friends were being targeted in an arrest sweep in the aftermath of the January 2016 execution of the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other people in a single day. One day, Hajji said, police told him he was being summoned to a police station in his birthplace of Al-Hasa in eastern Saudi Arabia, a two-hour drive from his residence in Damam.

“That was my first clue that I was going to be arrested. I’m used to going to police stations, as I am a lawyer, but they usually happen in the city of my work, Damam, not my birthplace,” Hajji told CNN.

He deleted his emails, packed his belongings and boarded a flight to Istanbul the next day. “I went to the airport leaving my fate to God. There were three possibilities: I could be arrested, I could be stopped from traveling or I could safely leave the country.”

He arrived in Istanbul and traveled to Berlin 10 days later, he said. After that, he began his life as a Saudi refugee.

“Going from being a lawyer to being a refugee was a substantial change. And it barely had a real justification. There was no war. It was just a question of asking for basic rights,” said Hajji. “I don’t like to say that I am a refugee.”

A week ago, Hajji’s father died and he was unable to attend his funeral. Saudi officials contacted him twice, once from the Berlin embassy and another time from inside the kingdom, asking him to return to the kingdom and promising safe passage. Both times, Hajji politely declined, he says.

“If I were to return to Saudi Arabia, an arrest would be unlikely. But the situation isn’t about that. When one returns, one is under a lot of political pressure and is consistently being blackmailed,” said Hajji. “Our trust in the state is non-existent.”

Saudi Arabia has not responded to requests for comment on Hajji’s case.

Female exodus

The Arabia Foundation’s Shihabi said he’s skeptical that women could be leaving Saudi Arabia because of current political conditions. Social reforms introduced by MBS have improved women’s conditions in the kingdom “dramatically,” he said.

He said the frequency of reported women’s escapes in recent months could be due, instead, to greater willingness for Western countries to host asylum-seekers in the aftermath of the Khashoggi fallout. “There’s an appetite in the world with the demonization that’s happening to Saudi Arabia that creates more opportunities (for asylum),” said Shihabi.

But many activists and Saudi feminist groups argue that the reforms pushed by the crown prince have reached a standstill, precipitating the urgency to flee.

“There has been tremendous increase in the number of Saudi women leaving the country especially in light of MBS and the imprisonment of Saudi activists,” said Saudi human rights officer Ahmadi, who is now based in Seattle and says she is regularly contacted for advice by women seeking to flee.

“I think a lot of women feel unsafe and they feel like any chances or hope that they had that things would be better has almost gone by now. It’s fight or flight. Fight is no longer there so it’s literally just flight.”

For Nourah, who says she had been plotting her escape for much of her life, it was her parents choosing her future husband on her behalf that accelerated her decision.

“The idea of escaping was always with me, and I used to put money aside with the idea that I would one day leave,” said Nourah.

“The Saudi government keeps trying to convince me that I’ve turned myself into a homeless person,” she said. “But, in truth, my escape from Saudi Arabia was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”