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Saudi students in U.S. say their government watches their every move

When a 26-year-old Saudi student first arrived on a Midwest college campus two years ago, he looked forward to meeting new friends, learning how to think differently, and organizing on campus. But unlike his fellow undergraduates, he says he is not allowed to speak freely.

The student, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, is on a Saudi government scholarship. And for years, according to intelligence experts and eight current and former Saudi students interviewed by the PBS NewsHour, the Saudi government has closely monitored them when they leave to study in the U.S. They say the penalties for those who criticize the Kingdom while abroad are daunting: passport freezes, death threats, intimidation, retraction of scholarships, and attempts to lure them back to the country.

The Saudi government denies that it attempts to surveil its students or lure them back. For the majority of its students, Saudi embassy spokesperson Fahad Nazer said, the U.S. college experience is a positive one.

The student who attended the Midwestern college said that at one school event in 2017, a fellow Saudi student told him that he and another person were there with one purpose: to report back to the embassy and the Saudi government.

Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said he was contacted last fall by a Johns Hopkins University professor who was upset that one of his students received a text message from the Saudi embassy. Coogle said the carefully worded text message instructed the student to steer clear of “anti-Saudi” events, which the student perceived as a threat.

The anonymous student who spoke with NewsHour believes that “inside every student organization we are involved in, [the Kingdom has] one or two spies. The Saudi embassy contacts these students and they say ‘Now, if you have an event, we need a full report back to us on everything that happened. Just write the report, and add everything that was said during the event,’” he said.

Saudi students first began coming to the United States in the mid-1950s, when that government opened an office for educational affairs in New York City. By 1975, there were about 2,000 Saudi students on government scholarships in the U.S.

Today, 60,000 Saudi Arabians currently study in the U.S., and nearly 40,000 have scholarships from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education that provide full tuition, health insurance and a monthly stipend.

Embassy spokesman Nazer said students in the U.S. “are informal, unofficial ambassadors and the overwhelming majority go back to help the Kingdom develop.”

The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM), the main branch of the embassy in charge of student affairs, says its mission is to “provide our students with the best possible educational opportunities at the best educational institutions in the U.S.A. … [to] support our students academically and financially so that they may concentrate on achieving their academic goals.”

In 2017, the Fairfax, Virginia-based SACM published a list of rules for students studying abroad in a Saudi state newspaper. The first rule on the list: no political or religious discussions, and no media interviews while studying abroad.

According to students interviewed for this story, the government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also ensures they know they are being watched.

Is this new?

The surveillance of Saudi Arabian students is not a new phenomenon, said former FBI agent Frank Montoya, who served as the director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive from 2012 to 2014. He says while he was there, he heard of a couple of cases, but it was never a priority because the agency did not believe it was a trend.

But Montoya said that according to agents he has spoken still serving with FBI, the practice of watching students in the U.S. has dramatically expanded under Prince Mohammed — also known as MBS.

In an email to the NewsHour, the FBI National Press Office said it had no comment on alleged Saudi surveillance.

After years of tense relations with the Obama White House, ties between the Kingdom and the Trump administration have grown much friendlier, say many analysts and experts.

Saudi Arabia is “taking the White House’s public position as acquiescence, as opportunity to do what they want when they want to do it, and that includes inside the U.S.,” Montoya said. He pointed to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October as a sign of “Saudi Arabia’s willingness to go beyond established norms.” The CIA has assessed that Prince Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.

“There is no way the Saudis would kill a journalist, a U.S. resident, if they didn’t think they could get away with it under Trump,” Montoya said.

Despite tough criticism from Congress, President Donald Trump has repeatedly defended the crown prince, who took power in June 2017, and promoted the idea of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration also missed a deadline last month to submit a report to Congress answering who was responsible for the murder of Khashoggi.

“Consistent with the previous Administration’s position and the constitutional separation of powers, the president maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate,” a senior administration official said shortly after the deadline passed.

Meanwhile, Coogle said, “the Saudis feel like they have hit the jackpot, they have unwavering support from the administration.”

Human rights organizations and critics say the crown prince silences any form of dissent. In September 2017, the Kingdom arrested more than 20 figures who Saudi authorities claimed were tied to “intelligence activities for the benefit of foreign parties.” Two months later, the crown prince launched an “anti-corruption” campaign that led to the arrest of more than 300 people, including fellow royals, in a move analysts saw as an attempt to consolidate power.

Why some are “too scared to have an opinion”

There are hundreds of Saudi student-led cultural organizations in the United States. According to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, “our kingdom has ambassadors and the clubs are embassies.” But students say their clubs are under complete control of the embassy.

For students in the U.S., this has meant “whether you are reading books or playing soccer, you must have permission from the Saudi cultural mission in the embassy,” according to the anonymous student.

He also said that in order for Saudi student organizations to formally meet or plan events on college campuses, students need permission from the embassy.

He noticed a change in the way things happened on campus. “If you want to organize an academic conference, you need permission from them at least three months in advance,” he said. “All of the events that we wanted to plan on campus disappeared.”

He is not alone. Other students have similar stories that stretch back years, before President Trump took office and before Mohammad bin-Salman became the crown prince. Abdullah Alaoudh, a Georgetown University fellow, was invited to speak at a book club event on campus in 2016. There, an individual approached Alaoudh and told him he had been sent by SACM to report back on Alaoudh’s comments. The student warned him not to say anything critical about Saudi Arabia. He also told Alaoudh that there was another student present at the event who was also told to report back to the Cultural Mission.

“They follow us, and they want to know what Saudis think about the government and about Saudi foreign policy here in the United States,” Alaoudh said.

Embassy spokesman Nazer denied any government attempts to spy on students. “I think the claim 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,” he said.

In 2015, Alaoudh was studying under a Saudi government scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh. Without any warning, the government canceled his scholarship, telling him he had to go back to Saudi Arabia to resolve the issue. “At that time, I knew it was a trap,” he said.

Alaoudh filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Education to get his scholarship money back. He won the suit last year, but is still waiting to receive his money. The lawsuit includes a reference to complaints made against Alaoudh by two Saudi students over comments he made in person and on social media.

Other students say the Kingdom uses money as leverage to silence them.

At the University of San Diego one day last August, senior Abdulrahman Al-Mutairy’s phone rang with a call from a Virginia number he didn’t recognize; the man on the other end wasn’t a friend. He was calling from a branch of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Fairfax, Virginia, and he had a strict warning: Stop talking, or we take away everything.

“Every Saudi student in the U.S. is too scared to have an opinion, even in our own hangouts. No one can criticize the government … and there’s no second chance. If they take away your scholarship, that’s it,” Al-Mutairy said.

Al-Mutairy learned first-hand the consequences of criticizing the Kingdom after he began speaking out against the Saudi religious establishment on social media last August.

Soon after, he received the warning call along with a letter telling him he needed to stop. He said he was instructed over the phone by a Cultural Mission official to sign the letter by the following Monday or his scholarship would be revoked, and all of his benefits would be put on hold.

“It’s a student’s worst nightmare,” Al-Mutairy said. “And the Cultural Mission is using this method to blackmail us,” he said.

Al-Mutairy said he signed the letter, fearing he would have to return to Saudi Arabia if he did not. But he continued speaking out, and a few weeks later, he received an email that his scholarship was terminated.

A month later, Al-Mutairy released a video he made about the Saudi government’s involvement in the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi. Afterwards, he said the government instructed his family to cut him off financially, and to stop communicating with him, essentially labeling him a political dissident.

“I felt completely isolated, and I needed my family, especially in that point of time. I needed someone to talk to,” Al-Mutairy said.

Al-Mutairy said he now receives death threats on Twitter daily, with accounts calling on the government to publicly execute him.

A tweet to Al-Mutairy reads in part “Abdulrahman Al-Mutairy should be crucified to deter other people.”

Are there any solutions?

In October 2017, Al-Alaoudh’s passport was set to expire. He filled out a renewal application; embassy officials emailed him to say he could not do so without returning to Saudi Arabia.

The same month, Al-Mutairy received a phone call from a fellow Saudi, asking him if he wanted to go back to Saudi Arabia to say hello to his family. After Al-Mutairy resisted, the man told him he would be returning to the country, whether he liked it or not. In the same phone call, the man told Al-Mutairy that he had contacted the State Department and that they would force him to return because he was a Saudi citizen.

“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, just because I published a video,” he said.

Montoya says this Saudi surveillance of its students and citizens will continue unless there is pushback from the executive level.

“At the very least there should be pushback, not just from one FBI official to another Saudi security officer, but a note of protest from the United States” he said. “And unfortunately that kind of thing often doesn’t happen until someone gets hurt.”

Coogle, the Human Rights Watch researcher, says the Saudi Arabian government will not have the support of the United States government forever. “They’re making so many enemies, including in Congress, that it will come back on them. This administration has a limited amount of years left and then it’s someone else that likely won’t support them in this way,” he said.

Saudi students say there is no escaping surveillance from the Kingdom so long as the country is led by a crown prince who has not been censured by the U.S.

“They have no limits, they can reach you everywhere. And the message of Jamal Khashoggi was that — we are going to reach you everywhere,” Alaoudh said.

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