The Washington Post published a piece on February 27 titled “After dissident vanishes in Canada, Saudi exiles fear they are in jeopardy.” This article, written by Sarah Dadouch, reported on the case of Ahmed Abdullah al-Harbi, a 24-year-old Saudi dissident who was, until earlier this year, living in Montreal, Canada.
Due to the mystery surrounding his sudden absence and reappearance in Saudi Arabia weeks later, human rights activists will likely point to Harbi’s file when arguing that the Biden administration’s refusal to sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in connection to the Jamal Khashoggi murder case is misguided and sends the wrong message.
Along with other Saudi dissidents, Harbi “worked on several projects” which entailed “an opposition talk show on YouTube.”
In 2019, Harbi came to Canada where he was granted asylum. Along with other Saudi dissidents, Harbi “worked on several projects” which entailed “an opposition talk show on YouTube and participation in a network of volunteers active on Twitter to counter Saudi Arabia’s ‘flies,’ the government-backed operation that attacks social media users critical of authorities.” According to the Washington Post piece, Harbi underwent an interrogation at the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa. Under pressure, he provided information about the network of Saudi dissidents and activists in Canada.
“When you enter, you feel like you’re Khashoggi,” was how he put it. Harbi explained that the Saudi Embassy staff in Ottawa provided him with a ticket to the Kingdom. But he refused to fly home and Harbi, unlike Khashoggi in Istanbul, was able to leave the diplomatic building alive.
But that’s not the end of his story.
After leaving the Saudi Embassy, Harbi “disappeared” for approximately three weeks. On February 18, he had a new Twitter account. Unlike his previous one, this account had no references to Khashoggi’s murder, prisoners in Saudi Arabia, or any other controversial political issue. This account featured MBS’ picture and its first tweet was a celebration of Harbi’s return to the Kingdom with a photo of a plane ticket, dated February 7, that included Harbi’s name. Harbi’s friends believe that the Saudi government forced him to return home to the Kingdom after his embassy visit.
Dadouch quoted Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident involved in “Say It and Walk Away” (the name of the YouTube show) and their Twitter network. He said that by making Harbi “vanish” from Canada, the Saudi authorities may now have learned “intimate details of these operations.” An anonymous source who spoke to the Washington Post voiced concern about Harbi being at risk of torture in Saudi Arabia.
“The mysterious circumstances in which Saudi officials whisked Harbi back to Saudi Arabia . . . suggest that MBS is not yet done trying to silence exiles abroad.”
“The mysterious circumstances in which Saudi officials whisked Harbi back to Saudi Arabia, not unlike its attempts to persuade Khashoggi and Abdulaziz to return, suggest that MBS is not yet done trying to silence exiles abroad,” Sarah Leah Whiston, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told Inside Arabia in a recent interview. “The prince clearly can’t rest until he’s managed to quiet every last Saudi critic, wherever they may be,” Whitson added.
More broadly, Harbi’s case points to the reality in which dissidents from the Middle East remain unsafe from their governments while living in the West. This raises important questions about what Western governments should do for exiles from countries ruled by authoritarian regimes with a record of intimidating or waging violence against their subjects abroad. Dr. Annelle Sheline, a Research Fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, explained to Inside Arabia that governments throughout the West should become more proactive in terms of offering citizenship to dissidents from countries whose governments target dissidents and critics abroad.
“Often it is the necessity of continuing to engage with their home countries’ embassies and consular systems that can endanger dissidents, which is why host governments must adjust to this new reality by expanding opportunities for targeted individuals to become citizens,” said Dr. Sheline. “The US should make clear that targeting dissidents abroad is completely unacceptable and provide protection to individuals trying to escape Saudi state oppression.”
Following the fallout of the Khashoggi affair, it is fair to question whether there are any signs that MBS has learned some lessons from that saga. It is reasonable to conclude that the Saudi Crown Prince remains very assertive—and in many peoples’ eyes, very reckless—when it comes to his dealing with Saudi dissidents, critics, and exiles abroad.
Soon after Khashoggi’s killing, MBS allegedly sent a hit-squad to Toronto to kill Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence official.
Soon after Khashoggi’s killing, MBS allegedly sent a hit-squad to Toronto to kill Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence official; MBS denies these accusations. This was purportedly part of a plot that failed due to the suspicions of Canadian border agents who may have been tipped off by the two bags of forensic tools which the alleged mercenary team was trying to bring in.
If the Saudi government continues using its embassies and consulates in foreign countries to force Saudi dissidents abroad into returning to the Kingdom, the response from President Joe Biden administration’s will be critical to observe. Currently, Biden is receiving criticism from human rights organizations for not sanctioning MBS after the US government released its four-page declassified intelligence report on Khashoggi’s killing in February.
Looking ahead, Harbi’s case will probably be used by those who argue that such conduct on the part of the Saudi government is a direct result of both the Trump and (now) Biden administrations’ failure to punish MBS directly and sufficiently for allegedly approving Khashoggi’s killing.