Saudi Opposition: Searching For a Flicker of Hope in London

Osama Gaweesh- London, AJ. Net

“Britain is the oldest ally of Saudi Arabia”

With these words, the Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, welcomed the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) during a Saudi Arabia visit to London in March 2018.

Welcoming banners covered the walls of London’s largest squares, advertisements were hung in subway stations, photos of MBS were printed on the front pages of major British newspapers with headlines such as, “The reformist prince visiting Britain, and will be welcomed on the red carpet at 10 Downing Street, the UK Prime Minister’s residence.”

“A Reformer Prince”

With this slogan, the Saudi crown prince promoted his visit to Britain, unaware that soon after, a dramatic change will happen.

At 1 pm on October 2, 2018, Istanbul time, Jamal Khashoggi took his final steps towards his country’s consulate in Turkey, leaving behind his fiancée Khadija. Only two hours later, his fiancée contacted the former Saudi army officer and current British-based dissident Yahya Asiri, to inform him that Jamal had disappeared inside the consulate, and that something strange was happening.

The British-based dissident Yahya Asiri said: “I tried to make some calls. The goal was to put pressure on the Saudi authorities to reveal Jamal’s fate. Unfortunately, my efforts were futile, as they had already planned his assassination. The last contact made between Khashoggi and me was ten days before his murder. He suggested that we reason with what remained from MBS’s conscience and sensibility. I objected to what he proposed, but he said, “Let’s send him that message for our fellow detainees and for the Saudi people.”

Between March and October 2018, the Saudi opposition in Britain underwent a major change. The opposition found itself able to carry out demonstrations in many British cities with the help of leading human rights and civil society organizations there. The city squares that once had their walls covered with MBS’s pictures to welcome him, were now filled with angry voices denouncing what happened to Khashoggi. Cars were seen roaming the streets with pictures of “Mr. Hacksaw” and MBS stained with blood. Seven months were enough to expose the real side of the Saudi regime and squander the millions that it had spent to promote MBS’s alleged reformist image.

One of the Saudi opposition figures, Muhammad al-Omari, says: “Khashoggi’s murder was proof that no one was safe. In fact, its impact on those living inside Saudi Arabia was worse than the impact on those living abroad. It revealed the true color of MBS, and uncovered the mask that he was wearing. The recent events encouraged those who were inside the country to approach us more than they did before.”

Saudi lawyer and activist Sultan al-Abdali believes that the opposition is now more present in the British media where deeper connections are being made.

Saudi academic Madawi al-Rasheed, who has been living in Britain since the 1990s, says: “The Saudi opposition in Britain has gained a great momentum, which was not the case before Khashoggi’s death. Although the opposition was present since the 1990s, after Khashoggi’s death, it became clear to me that there were many voices coming from both women and men, and people with different ideologies, who have gone to seek political asylum in Britain. These also include Saudi students who decided to flee their country due to free speech restrictions on Twitter and other online platforms.”

Escaping From Hell

In February 2018, CNN published a report that detailed a significant increase in the number of political asylum seekers who are escaping the authoritarian MBS. The number of Saudi asylum seekers increased by more than 318% in 2017 compared to 2012. The report indicated that the number of political asylum seekers in Britain in 2017 reached 184 Saudis and the numbers are on the rise after Khashoggi’s death.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 800 Saudis sought refuge in Britain in 2017, with 200 being political activists, while the rest were citizens escaping injustice in Saudi Arabia. Among those activists were teachers, doctors and engineers who traveled with their families to apply for asylum. However, the reluctance of the UK Immigration Service to grant asylum appeared to have been the typical and overall attitude towards many figures from the Saudi opposition.

“What happened to me was strange,” Sultan al-Abdali said. “I had to wait for four months between the first and the second interview at the Home Office. The officer told me, “We should have gotten back to you within two months as I could have examined your case on my own, but given the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Britain, we will transfer your case to a higher committee for a more thorough examination.”

Britain’s careful treatment of the cases put forward by Saudi asylum seekers is not something new. It happened once before with Dr. Saad al-Faqih, a refugee who applied for asylum in 1994, and who is still waiting to be granted asylum. Al-Faqih was originally a surgeon among the reformist Islamist activists who signed the Statement of Demands in April 1991 as well as the one Advisory Memorandum in July 1992, which were both letters forwarded to the Late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud demanding political reform and the fighting of corruption.

Al-Faqih left Saudi Arabia with his family in 1994 on the pretext of participating in a medical conference in Switzerland as a way to convince the authorities and escape from the country immediately after his release from a four-week detention in prison. From Switzerland, he traveled to Britain where he sought asylum. Al-Faqih believes the reason for delaying the decision of granting him and other Saudi opposition figures asylum, is due to the political pressures exerted by Saudi Arabia on the British governments.

As for Fahd al-Ghuwaidi, who was detained in 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2018, and who traveled to several countries, including Turkey, arrived to London a few months after the murder of Khashoggi. From there, he applied for political asylum after the Saudi authorities claimed his money. Al-Ghuwaidi says he received a letter from the Home Office one week after he submitted his application, telling him that his position was weak, and that his asylum would be rejected. Al-Ghuwaidi believes this is due to “Official Saudi-British agreements to the highest degree.”

Pressure For More Deals

Britain is second only to the United States in terms of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report in 2018, Britain’s deals with Riyadh account for 49% of its total military exports over the past five years. Is the British government prepared to sacrifice its military exports deal, which is worth $ 1.4 billion per year, in return for the official recognition of the Saudi opposition?

The Saudi-British relations has been governed by arms deals since Saudi Arabia’s first al-Yamamah deal with Britain, which was worth $ 43 billion, and was overseen by both the prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was then the Defense Minister, and the British Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine. This was evident during the renewal of al-Yamamah deal, during the conservative period led by Former Prime Minister Sir John Major. At that time, Riyadh stipulated that the British authorities must hand over the Saudi dissident, al-Misaari, in order to finalize the deal.

The British government promised the then Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to extradite al-Misaari, who after that promise fought a legal war against these attempts. He was to be deported to the Dominica Island, a former British colony in the Caribbean, but this ruling was rejected by al-Masaari since his personal safety would be threatened in the Dominica Island. So he filed a complaint to the Supreme Court, which granted him the right to reside within British territories.

In 2004, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s influence was growing when Britain attempted a historic $70 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The deal included re-equipping Saudi forces with European Typhoon fighters, most of which were made by British aircraft maker BAA. However the Saudi government had stipulated three conditions to complete the deal, the first and most important is the extradition of two of the most prominent Saudi opposition figures: al- Masaari and Saad al-Faqih.

The Saudi government also stipulated that the British Airways’ flights must return to their normal schedule to and from Saudi Arabia and that Britain drops the financial corruption case involving arms deals of which the son-in-law of the then crown prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, prince Turki bin Nasr was accused of.

Attempts by the Saudi authorities to silence the opposition in Britain through Saudi Arabia’s official correspondence with the British governments, or through connecting the fate of the arms deals to the extradition of dissidents did not stop there. Indeed, it had devised a number of assassinations, attacks, and surveillance schemes of Saudi dissidents in Britain.

In 2003, two plumbers knocked on Dr. al-Faqih’s door in London, who said they were there to repair the plumbing inside the house. As soon as they entered, one of them sprayed a narcotics drug on al-Faqih’s face, who tried to defend himself, but was stabbed by the other person. Al-Faqih was subsequently transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London. In his testimony to the police, he accused Saudi authorities of sending the two agents to kill or kidnap him in an attempt to silence him after he launched his satellite channel not long before that.

Fifteen years after al-Faqih’s attack, another dissident, Ghanem al-Dossari, was assaulted on one of London’s biggest streets in October 2018. Al-Dossari is a Saudi dissident and a popular show host on YouTube. He was beaten and verbally assaulted a few weeks after the assassination of Khashoggi. “I was shocked when two passers-by were trying to attack me. One of them hit me on the face,” he said. “Then, he started insulting me and accusing me of being a Qatari agent, adding that I was nothing but a dog of his master Mohammed bin Salman.”

Spying on Saudi dissidents in Britain is one of the ways the Saudi government is using to track its opponents. In 2004, a scandal involving a police officer of Yemeni origin, Ghazi Kassim shocked Britain’s public opinion, when he was caught red-handed for his several attempts to spy on many Middle Eastern residents in Britain, most notably Dr. al-Massari.

The scandal began when officer Kassim, from the Fulham area went to al-Massari’s home to ask him personal questions. After a period of surveillance, the police searched Kassim’s office and found personal photos of al-Massari, the license plate numbers of his car and that of his wife’s, photographs of al-Massari’s home which were taken by Kassim, as well as spying tools placed on the dissident’s computer devices.

Faced with this hard evidence, the British police officer admitted the details of his crime, which was traced back to the office of the Saudi diplomat Dr. Ali al-Shamrani, inside the Saudi embassy. Al-Shamrani appeared to have bribed Kassim with a total of £ 14,000 to spy on al-Masaari. The officer was dismissed from the police service and put in prison, while al-Shamrani was deported back to Saudi Arabia by order of the British government.

Saudi opposition figure Mohammed al-Omari says that the police then contacted al-Massari and told him the details of what happened. They also asked him to take some measures concerning his personal security.

14 years after the attempt to spy on Al-Masaari, CNN published a report of Saudi attempts to cooperate with the Israeli company, NSO Group, to spy on the young Saudi dissident Omar bin Abdul Aziz in Canada after his collaboration with Khashoggi on “The Cyber Bees” project.

Why Is Riyadh Worried About The Opposition In Britain?

Yahya Asiri, director of the ALQST human rights organization and Diwan London, which is an initiative founded last year, says Britain is now dealing with an entity called the “Saudi opposition” (the Saudi people).

Asiri believes that what the opposition stands for is to empower “the voices of the Saudi people who are unable to express themselves at home.” He talks about an interview he had with an official from the British Foreign Office, in which he was asked with great interest, about the opposition’s demands and opinion of what is happening. Asiri replied saying: “We are sending human rights messages to them, without trying to provoke them during discussions.”

Dr. al-Faqih disagrees with Asiri in his assessment of the British government’s position on the Saudi opposition. He believes that “after Khashoggi’s murder, the British government attempted to communicate with the opposition but they stopped before recognizing the existence of an entity called the Saudi opposition. Actually, the British government does not communicate with an opposition party, nor does it want to do so because it is afraid of losing deals. We know that Britain is using the Saudi opposition’s card to twist the arm of Saudi Arabia to be able to make more deals. If not for that, it would publicly support the Saudi opposition.”

The calculations of the British government did not rule out the possibility, however small, of the fall of the Saudi regime, which is why they are dealing with the Saudi opposition. “If the Saudi regime falls, they would prefer to deal with a realistic opposition, even if they don’t like it. This is preferred to leaving the country slide into chaos, or letting it be taken over by jihadi groups that Britain doesn’t know how to handle.” Saad al-Faqih

Aside from what is believed to be Britain’s expedient methods of dealing with the opposition, the Saudi opposition is putting another kind of pressure on the British government through organizing conferences. The opposition leaders are being hosted in the British House of Commons to talk about the issue of human rights violations against Saudi women activists in Saudi prisons, and to highlight the consequences of the Saudi war on Yemen. The Saudi opposition symbols exert another kind of societal pressure within Britain, like the debate featuring Dr. Madawi al-Rasheed hosted at Intelligence Squared in London. The debate brought together more than 1,000 people in February and discussed the appeal for Western governments to cut ties with the Saudi regime.

Al-Rasheed commented on this debate saying: “I was amazed by the number of people who attended the debate. And the biggest surprise for me was that the percentage of votes before the debate was different from the percentage after it.”

According to al-Rasheed the voting result before the debate started, was 41% pro severing ties, 22% against severing ties, and 37% were indecisive. However, after the debate, the results were completely different: 63% were pro severing ties, 32% were against severing ties, and 5% were indecisive.

Asiri believes that the Saudi regime is deeply disturbed by these conferences and movements led by opposition leaders in Britain, and their reactions to them is most evident through the threatening messages that are constantly being sent to all the dissidents.

The Saudi authorities arrested Sultan al-Abdali’s son, who is suffering from a heart disease, disregarding his medical condition, and who has received death threats on his Twitter account. Al-Abdali then filed a complaint to the British police but did not receive the support needed.

As for the dissident Fahd al-Ghuwaidi, the Saudi authorities arrested his autistic younger brother back home, as soon as Fahd revealed that he was in Britain.

Abdullah al-Ghamdi, who is another dissident, sent a small amount of money to his sick mother in Saudi Arabia. The authorities arrested and interrogated her inhumanly before they released her.

What then?

What can the Saudi opposition in Britain offer? Asiri told Al Jazeera Net that he was asked this question by a sovereign body within Saudi Arabia during a call between them.

Asiri also revealed that the first thing any British official who meets with the opposition representatives, asks is “what is your value? ignoring our morals and ethics ​​that we advocate and talk about. I think that this requires moving towards a new and strong path that brings together the Saudi opposition under one big political umbrella.”

The available options of the Saudi opposition in Britain after the murder of Khashoggi, fluctuate between the creation of a new political party, which would bring together various ideologies both home and abroad, or a national body that brings together all these politically different entities under one umbrella, while others are talking about the creation of a new satellite channel.

Work is being done at a fast pace where the opposition is holding behind-the-scenes meetings to announce the new party six-months from now at a news conference in London. The aim of this party, as pointed out by Sultan al-Abdali, is to reassure the Saudi community that the opposition can come forth with a real political agenda that aims to unite everyone at home and abroad.

“We will open the door for online membership to everyone and we care more about those at home,” al-Abdali adds in his talk about the party.

“The problem lies in the absence of political awareness in Saudi Arabia as well as in the intrinsic differences between the Saudi leaders. That is actually what we seek to avoid in the new party,” says al-Omari.

Asiri also talked about the formation of a political party or a national umbrella organization for the opposition to fall under. However, he denied that it was the same party al-Abdali and his comrades are working on. He believes that the purpose of creating a party is to fill the political gap that could grow bigger at any moment.

“There could be internal struggle or Al-Saud family could fall, which could lead to the formation of a national party that would accommodate all ideologies,” he says.

As for Dr. Alrasheed, she believes that there will not be one uniting political party that could become an umbrella organization to the different groups of the opposition. But she believes that a national front may be the best path forward to overcome the differences.

Al-Faqih, on the other hand, refused to join any initiative that aims to form a new party or a national front, before reviewing all the details related to party.

Forming a new party is not the only project that the Saudi opposition in Britain is hoping to achieve. There is a consensus on the need for launching a satellite channel for the Saudi opposition in Britain. However, the problem lies in securing the necessary funds for it.

In 2017, Khashoggi met Asiri in London where they agreed to go ahead with the creation of a TV channel that would be managed by Khashoggi. A large number of Saudi writers, media practitioners and political figures were then contacted. They agreed to join the channel team and work from Britain. A Saudi businessman also said he was willing to invest in the channel completely, but retracted funding at the last minute.

The Saudi opposition in Britain, after Khashoggi’s murder, has gone through a major change and is no longer affected by the past. Nowadays, the doors of the British parliament are wide open for them and the civil society organizations have placed Saudi Arabia at the top of their lists. London’s largest squares are now raising pictures of “Mr. Hacksaw” along with statements condemning his crimes against Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi.

The Saudi opposition in Britain is seeking to announce many projects in the coming days. But the funding remains to be one of the biggest challenges ahead. However, the biggest difficulty facing the opposition, as described by the former Saudi army officer Asiri, is the condition of Saudi citizens at home.

Opposition Leaders

Dr. Mohammed al-Misaari

Born in 1946, Dr. al-Misaari is a professor of nuclear physics, co-founder and spokesperson of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights. He was dismissed from work in 1993, pursued and arrested. However, the following year, he managed to travel to Yemen, and from there he moved to Britain where he sought asylum with a false passport.

The British authorities tried to get rid of him by deporting him to the Dominica Island, but he was granted the right to stay in Britain through a judicial ruling. However, he was not granted political asylum that would allow him to leave the country and return to it. In 2004, he dissolved the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, and established the Party for Islamic Renewal.

Dr. Saad Rashid al-Faqih

Born in 1957, Dr. al-Faqih is a surgeon, an Islamic reformist activist, and co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights. In 1993 he was arrested in Saudi Arabia before being dismissed from work and banned from traveling due to his reform and anti-corruption activities during the reign of King Fahd Bin Abdel Aziz.

He left for Switzerland with his family in 1994 on the pretext of participating in a scientific conference. From there he moved to Britain to seek asylum, where he became director of the London office of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights. He soon left the post after a dispute with Mohammed al-Misaari. In 1996, he established the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia.

Yahya Asiri

Born in 1980, Asiri is a former Saudi Royal Air Force officer. He took refuge in Britain in 2014 because of his opposition to the Saudi regime. He is currently focused on human rights issues as he launched a Twitter page under the name, “Detainees of expression”. He established both al-Qast (justice) Human Rights Organization and Diwan London club in 2018, which organized two conferences that brought together many groups of the Saudi opposition.

Dr. Madawi al-Rasheed

Born in 1962, Dr. al-Rasheed is a Professor of social anthropology, and granddaughter of the last governor of the Al-Rasheed family in Hail. She has written several books and articles that appeared in academic journals on topics relating to the Arabian Peninsula, Arab immigration and globalization. She offers consultation services to government agencies and international NGOs in Britain and around the world. She is also known for being a critic of the Saudi regime and its policies, and appears on Arab news channels and papers.

Sultan al-Abdali

Born in 1977, al-Abdali is a lawyer and political activist. In 2005, he was arrested for several months for supporting reformers. He sought asylum in Britain in September 2017, after the widespread arrests accompanying the rise of the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Saudi authorities arrested his son Mohammed in March 2019, and put his family under house arrest, where they were banned from traveling. This was done, according to human rights reports, to force al-Abdali to surrender.

Ghanem al-Dosari

Born in 1980, al-Dosari is an actor, satirist, and human rights activist based in London since 2003. In 2015, he launched a YouTube talk show called Ghanem Show, in which he criticizes Saudi Arabia and the ruling family, especially King Salman and his son Muhammad. Unknown assailants assaulted him in London in September 2018, and there were attempts to hack his mobile phone.

The Chances of the Saudi opposition Being Globally Accepted

Source: Aljazeera.net (Original Content -Arabic)

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