These Saudi citizens in the U.S. criticized their government. Now they live in fear

These Saudi citizens in the U.S. criticized their government. Now they live in fear


JUDY WOODRUFF: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: College senior Abdulrahman
Al-Mutairy is carefree with his classmates, but he feels he has to watch his back. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY, Saudi Student and
Activist: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: In a Manhattan art gallery,
photographer Danah Al-Mayouf is worried. DANAH AL-MAYOUF, Saudi Activist: 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? NICK SCHIFRIN: And ,in Washington, D.C., Georgetown
University fellow Abdullah Alaoudh says, even 6,000 miles from home, there’s nowhere to
hide. ABDULLAH ALAOUDH, Saudi Activist: They have
no limits. They can reach you everywhere. They fear every criticism and every different
opinion. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY: It’s a reality, and,
unfortunately, it’s happening in United States soil. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY (through translator):
If God accepts repentance, who are you to curse me? NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY (through translator):
You didn’t only kill him. You chopped him up. Is this a government or a mafia? NICK SCHIFRIN: He said there’s no chance Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, wasn’t involved. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY (through translator):
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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY: 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. (through translator): I miss you. May God protect you. And I hope we meet soon. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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? ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: And have they also tried to
pressure you? ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: The Saudi government has
no limits. So, if you’re dealing with somebody like this,
it’s just scary. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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: FAHAD NAZER, Saudi Embassy Spokesman: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. FAHAD NAZER: 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. DANAH AL-MAYOUF: I fell in love with freedom,
and I didn’t want to go back. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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. DANAH AL-MAYOUF: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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? DANAH AL-MAYOUF: Yes, I think so. NICK SCHIFRIN: And do you have any idea who’s
behind it? DANAH AL-MAYOUF: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: But she wasn’t alone. In 2017, Alaoudh applied in Washington to
renew his Saudi passport. ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: They said, if you want to
renew your passport, you have to go back to Saudi Arabia in order to do that. NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you think they were luring
you back home? ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Yes, I strongly think that. And, you know, the case of Khashoggi is just
another example. NICK SCHIFRIN: For Al-Mutairy, the attempt
to lure him home was a phone call from a fellow Saudi promising a family reunion. ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: Can you go home today? ABDULRAHMAN AL-MUTAIRY: 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. NICK SCHIFRIN: 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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