Nineteen family members of Saudi Muslim scholar and political prisoner Salman Al-Awda have been banned from traveling outside of Saudi Arabia, including six great-grandchildren, the youngest barely a year. MBS has also targeted the royals, the wealthy and the powerful in an effort to intimidate, shake and thwart any challenges to his power. The campaign against the Saudi power elite was launched in November 2017, when MBS security forces arrested hundreds of the kingdom’s wealthiest royals and businessmen in the chic and now sadly famous Ritz Carlton hotel. After enduring weeks of imprisonment that would have included torture and forcible bifurcation, the Ritz inmates were released – except for one who died in custody. (A Saudi official told The New York Times that the abuse and torture allegations are “absolutely false.”)
The shakedown and intimidation continues, however, under the guise of the travel ban, a non-violent but still effective tool of oppression. From the Ritz, we estimate, based on our sources in Saudi Arabia, that hundreds of wealthy and royals have been added to the no-go list, along with their families.
These prohibitions violate Saudi domestic law, its own regional treaty obligations and international law. Saudi domestic law requires that all bans have “a specific period of time” and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which Saudi Arabia is a party, prohibits governments from “arbitrarily or unlawfully” depriving citizens of their right to leave the country. In addition, customary international law, which is binding on all countries, requires any government that issues a travel ban to provide “specific criteria” for the ban and to give the individual concerned the opportunity to appeal.
The Saudi government’s travel bans ignore all of these national and international legal requirements, denying citizens the right to leave the country. Many people on the ban list often only find out when they are going to the airport or trying to cross a border post, making it difficult to know exactly how many people have been affected. The ban is also an integral part of the government’s oppressive apparatus, a first step in a continuum that, depending on the whims of its unelected leaders, may well evolve into detention or disappearance.
Sarah and Omar Aljabri, aged 21 and 22, children of former intelligence official Saad Aljabri who fled the country to Canada, have followed this continuum from travel ban to secret trial. by detention in an unknown location. They are children being used as pawns to turn up the pressure on their father, who last August filed a lawsuit in a Washington, DC district court, alleging that MBS sent an assassination squad from Saudi Arabia. in Canada to try to kill him just days after journalist Jamal Khashoggi. was killed by members of the same group. (MBS has denied personal responsibility for the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018, but said he took “full responsibility” for the journalist’s murder because it was committed by Saudi officials.)
Others have been arrested or disappeared completely after being imposed a travel ban: Ahmed and Abdulmajeed Abdulaziz, two brothers of prominent Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, the wealthy and members of the royal family Faisal Bin Abdullah, Basma bint Saud and Mohammed bin Nayef, to name but a few. that have been documented by Human Rights Watch. All Saudis banned from travel, as well as exiled dissidents, live in a twilight of uncertainty and fear.
The United States has an important stake in this clash between dissident and authoritarian forces in Saudi Arabia – a struggle that is also being played out on a larger scale in the Middle East and North Africa.
At the very least, the Biden administration – which says it wants to “recalibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia – has an obligation to temper the worst excesses of a leader who has a penchant for sadistic abuses and gratuitous wars that have harmed and destabilized the region. MBS is, after all, America’s responsibility as long as the U.S. government provides it with billions of military weapons and political cover. In addition, the United States has a fundamental reason, both from a moral and self-interest standpoint, to support the dissident and emerging democratic forces that are locked in an existential struggle with the forces of authoritarianism. across the region, from Egypt to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, UAE and Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Indeed, this fight is taking place all over the world and, as President Biden said, we are part of it.
To bolster the forces of democratic reform, the Biden administration should strike a blow against Saudi human rights abuses not only in Yemen, but also in Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration has already put a temporary freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia; He should take this break to implement targeted sanctions that would increase the costs of the travel ban for the Saudi government. Such a move would signal the Saudis and the world that the United States is standing firmly on the side of civil society and has turned the page on the Trump administration’s policy of embracing despots.
The new administration could take a small but significant step by instituting a ban on entry into the United States of Saudi leaders, a visa ban on key officials responsible for the travel ban, starting with court staff Royal Saudi Arabia and the Interior Ministry.
Such a tailored sanction would increase the cost of the travel ban for Saudis and could convince MBS to back down and allow Saudis who wish to leave to do so. A strong American response to the Saudi ban would also help fortify the community of dissident Arab exiles who may well play a critical role in the future of the region, and it would place the United States in the larger struggle in exactly our place. – on the side of dissidents, civil society and the rule of law.