Iyad el-Baghdadi is an Arab writer and activist. He is the founder of the Kawaakibi Foundation, an Oslo-based organization.
This post has been updated.
On April 25, agents from Norway’s Police Security Services (PST) arrived at my doorstep unexpectedly. They took me to a secure location before telling me that I was the target of a threat. It was soon clear that the source of that threat was the government of Saudi Arabia and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his right-hand man, Saud al-Qahtani.
PST reportedly received a tip from the CIA. At least two other activists — Omar Abdulaziz in Canada and an unnamed U.S.-based person — were also alerted to possible threats.
Besides being critics of the Saudi government, we all have another thing in common: We worked with journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. And that was a likely reason behind the threats.
But first, let’s zoom out for a bit of context. The 2011 uprisings saw the rise of a new Arab public sphere. While conventional media was tightly controlled, social media wasn’t, and this new, youthful public sphere flowered online. Twitter ultimately became the most important space, especially in Saudi Arabia, where it was immensely popular.
When MBS, as the crown prince is known, began his rise to power in 2015, it became clear that among his priorities was destroying this public sphere and dominating Arabic-language Twitter.
He and other Arab dictators succeeded. By 2017, Arabic-language Twitter went from being a tool of free expression for citizens to a weapon of social control for Arab dictators. Today, they use it to manufacture public consent, push out propaganda, disrupt conversations and deliver threats. Leading Arab intellectuals active on Twitter have been silenced, jailed, exiled — or killed.
My late friend Jamal was anguished about the state of free expression in the Arab world and he understood the importance of Twitter. During the last year of his life he started three projects aimed at reclaiming this public sphere.
Upon Jamal’s death, Abdulaziz inherited one of these initiatives. I inherited two. The third unnamed activist co-inherited one of these two.
The threats against me seem to have escalated after my involvement in investigating Saudi government Twitter campaigns against Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Post, for which Jamal wrote.
At the time of Jamal’s murder, Bezos had business interests in Saudi Arabia and a relationship with MBS. But with Bezos standing by The Post’s strong condemnation and reporting of Jamal’s brutal murder, MBS saw it as betrayal.
Later, when private messages from Bezos were leaked in a tabloid, he launched an investigation into their origin. This led to an attempt to blackmail him into silence, which failed when Bezos exposed it in a Medium post, in which he loudly hinted to a Saudi connection.
When this became public, I started investigating. After we published some preliminary thoughts on Twitter, I was contacted by Gavin de Becker, who headed Bezos’s investigation team. We began to collaborate, on a volunteer basis, and the investigation culminated in an extensive report that was submitted by de Becker to federal investigators. De Becker’s report concluded that the Saudis had hacked Bezos’s phone.
It was during this work that I felt the target growing on my back. I expressed my concerns to a number of Norwegian friends, then filed a police report in March. When the PST showed up at my door, I wasn’t surprised.
You may wonder: Wouldn’t it be rash and counterproductive for MBS to continue to target dissidents abroad after the backlash that followed Jamal Khashoggi’s murder?
Yes, but intimidation continues to pay off for the crown prince.
One of the most poignant messages I have received recently came from a human rights activist living in an Arab country. “If you’re threatened when you’re in Norway,” he said, “what chance do I have here?”
MBS is sending a message. In a dark way, this mirrors the logic of targeting Bezos: If the richest man on Earth can be targeted and potentially blackmailed, then who is safe?
The threats against me and my colleagues are not a one-off incident — they’re part of a new repressive tactic. MBS seems to be shedding his “reformist” image, having realized that it’s longer believable. After failing to convince the world that he is Saudi Arabia’s Ataturk, he wants to try being Saudi Arabia’s Putin.
But MBS is no Putin. He continues to be deeply dependent upon the West, particularly the United States. He’s only emboldened because the administration most capable of taking him to account is currently his bigger enabler.
As long as the Trump administration — and especially President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — continues to shield MBS from accountability, the crown prince will continue to commit crimes, wreak havoc and sow the seeds of decades of instability in the Middle East and beyond.
The Arab world is going through a tumultuous transition with both authoritarian hysteria and popular uprisings in the background. This is a battle of a generation. Allies of liberty across the world must rally to our help to tip the scales for us, or for our dictators.
As for my team and me, our work continues. Not only out of loyalty to Jamal Khashoggi, but also out of a sense of historical duty. If MBS would see it as a priority to target us, it must mean that we’re being effective.
This piece was adapted from remarks delivered at a press conference held in Oslo on Monday.