CNN Special Report “Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets,” hosted by Fareed Zakaria, airs Sunday, March 3 at 8 p.m. ET.
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.