As President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia testified before the Senate on Wednesday, he faced questions from some senators about the Saudi pattern of cracking down on dissidents. Even in the United States, Saudi citizens, including students and scholars, have experienced threats and harassment in response to their public criticism of the Saudi government. Nick Schifrin reports.
Today, the administration's nominee to become ambassador to Saudi Arabia, retired General John Abizaid, testified in the Senate. He defended the kingdom's importance to U.S. foreign policy, despite sharp criticism from senators who accuse the kingdom of cracking down on its critics.
As foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, even Saudi citizens here in the United States say they can't escape the watchful eye of their government.
College senior Abdulrahman Al-Mutairy is carefree with his classmates, but he feels he has to watch his back.
I was extremely afraid. I had to change my location. I didn't know what could happen next. I didn't know what to expect.
In a Manhattan art gallery, photographer Danah Al-Mayouf is worried.
Who are these people attacking me all the time who, like, want to basically put me in jail, want to see me homeless in America?
And ,in Washington, D.C., Georgetown University fellow Abdullah Alaoudh says, even 6,000 miles from home, there's nowhere to hide.
They have no limits. They can reach you everywhere. They fear every criticism and every different opinion.
Three Saudi citizens living in the U.S. who say they're targeted for their criticism of the Saudi government. They may be protected by U.S. laws, but they say they have no protection from Saudi surveillance.
It's a reality, and, unfortunately, it's happening in United States soil.
Al-Mutairy is a senior at the University of San Diego, and an activist via online video blogs. Last August, he began criticizing the ultra-conservative Saudi religious establishment.
If God accepts repentance, who are you to curse me?
The videos earned him thousands of Saudi and international followers, and the ire of the government.
He had been studying on a Saudi government scholarship. After the criticism, he says the Saudi Embassy warned him to stay silent. When he kept talking, he received this e-mail revoking his scholarship and this notification blocking his student portal.
Technically, he'd been warned. In 2017, the Saudi government published a list of rules for students studying abroad. Rule number one: Don't engage in political or religious discussion or conduct media interviews. By disobeying, Al-Mutairy ended up broke.
And on Twitter, critics said the government should crucify him. Terminating his scholarship wasn't enough.
Just because I expressed my religious belief, without harming anyone, my scholarship gets taken away. And it was a hard fact to digest that my own people and own government want me to be executed.
Up until then, Al-Mutairy's criticism was narrowly focused on religion. But then Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered while visiting Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate, and Al-Mutairy turned his target to his own government.
You didn't only kill him. You chopped him up. Is this a government or a mafia?
He said there's no chance Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, wasn't involved.
If he didn't know about this, he doesn't know about anything in the country. MBS doesn't know about the war in Yemen. He doesn't know that I'm a Saudi citizen who voiced his opinion and got my scholarship pulled, and now I live below the poverty line, and now I'm eating (EXPLETIVE DELETED). I'm eating dirt.
After that video, the government labeled him a political dissident, and he says his family in Saudi Arabia was instructed by the government to cut him off. He hasn't spoken to them since.
I really miss them a lot. I hope, if they're watching this interview, they know I'm OK and I miss them a lot.
I miss you. May God protect you. And I hope we meet soon.
Mohammed bin Salman has ushered in dramatic reforms, trying to curb the conservative clergy's power, and allowing women to attend movies and sporting events and drive.
But critics accuse him of silencing dissent. In November 2017, the government rounded up rival royals in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, arrested the very women who successfully campaigned for the right to drive, and senior officials close to MBS are accused of murdering Khashoggi.
They said it's a red line to criticize the crown prince, the Saudi crown prince. Well, killing a journalist in the Saudi consulate is not a red line? I mean, they have their own version of truth, probably.
Before Abdullah Alaoudh became a Georgetown fellow, back in 2014, he was on a Saudi scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh. He says it also got canceled because he criticized the government.
And how has the Saudi government targeted you while you're in the United States?
I get threats every day from Twitter accounts that a lot of people think is somehow associated to the Saudi government.
I mean, just today, I got, for example, a threat from a Twitter account, saying that we're going to lock you up, and we're going to find you, and we're going to bring you back and put you in a cell next to your father.
Alaoudh's father, Salman, is an outspoken activist and scholar who's released his own videos and called for a change in the Saudi government. He was arrested and now faces the death penalty.
Alaoudh said his father's interrogators mention him during interrogation.
Talking to somebody about his son and saying that, we are going to arrest him, we're going to torture him, we're going to do this and that to him, it's a way of intimidation and pressure.
And have they also tried to pressure you?
Yes, because they try to send the message that whatever you do is going to be reflected on my father and how they deal with my father.
Alaoudh says how the Saudis deal with him here is surveillance. He says, in 2016, before a public event, he was approached by another Saudi citizen who said he was there to spy and report back.
The Saudi government has no limits. So, if you're dealing with somebody like this, it's just scary.
The Saudi government denies it surveils its citizens in the U.S. via the embassy or the cultural mission, which oversees Saudi students.
Saudi Embassy spokesman Fahad Nazer:
I think the claim that the Saudi cultural mission is there to collect intelligence on students or to follow them around a very big country like the United States is a little absurd. They are there to help, and not to collect intelligence. That is simply not what they do.
Nazer himself received a Saudi scholarship to study in the U.S., one of hundreds of thousands of Saudi citizens to do so. He says focusing on the criticism misses the bigger picture.
The experience for the overwhelming majority of them is a positive one, and many of them actually contribute positively to their local communities visiting senior homes. They're working at soup kitchens. They are informal, unofficial ambassadors. And the overwhelming majority go back.
I fell in love with freedom, and I didn't want to go back.
Danah Al-Mayouf is a Saudi photographer and activist. She's a former student who says she didn't speak out, for fear of losing her scholarship. But now she advocates for Saudi women's rights.
Basically, we have been taught that we're less than men, and men are supposed to marry not only one wife, but four, and we should be fine with it, and all these poisonous ideas.
We learn them in school. So that's why I'm angry. Like, I'm an activist right now because, basically, this is wrong to teach young girls that you're less than men.
As she gained prominence, she said she received two strange offers, this e-mail with a lucrative job in the Saudi stock market, if she silenced herself. Then another Saudi citizen offered her a photography job, only to tell her in this WhatsApp message there was a case open against her and she'd be deported.
Looking back, Al-Mayouf thinks the whole thing was a trap.
Do you think that there's been an attempt to lure you back home?
Yes, I think so.
And do you have any idea who's behind it?
I believe the government, the Saudi government. They just hate seeing people talking. It's like their worst nightmare to see people talking, especially women.
But she wasn't alone. In 2017, Alaoudh applied in Washington to renew his Saudi passport.
They said, if you want to renew your passport, you have to go back to Saudi Arabia in order to do that.
Do you think they were luring you back home?
Yes, I strongly think that. And, you know, the case of Khashoggi is just another example.
For Al-Mutairy, the attempt to lure him home was a phone call from a fellow Saudi promising a family reunion.
He said: "Well, you know what? I am in L.A. right now. And I want you to join me and go to Saudi Arabia, where you say hi to your parents."
And I said, "No, I'm not going to go to Saudi Arabia."
And he said, "Well, you have to go back to Saudi Arabia."
This is when things kind of escalated.
Can you go home today?
The best-case scenario would be going to jail, without any charge, for five, 10, 15, 20 years. Worst-case scenario, I would be publicly executed.
Which is why he and the other activists are trying to stay here, knowing that, despite the freedom provided by the Southern California sun, they're always watching.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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