Global Opinions

The Saudi diaspora of dissidents in exile is fighting back


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Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights activist, is the author of “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”

“You are one of the last standing.” “Others don’t dare to talk — aren’t you scared for your life?” These are some of the comments I heard from members of the international media after the disappearance and murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. At the time, it seemed as if new details emerged every day about the horrific way his life came to an end. A year later, we are still looking for answers and waiting for those responsible to be held to account.

But my response to these comments has remained the same: “They are more scared of us than we are of them. They killed Jamal, but his voice is now louder than ever.”

When Jamal left Saudi Arabia in 2017, he was one of the country’s most well-known journalists. He had recently fallen out of favor with the Saudi government for criticizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. But Jamal loved his country and truly believed that by living in exile, he could continue to serve it by using his voice to call for reforms.

Jamal’s assassination in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was a clear message from the crown prince — a gruesome warning to anyone who dared question, criticize or challenge him. Jamal’s fate was particularly terrifying for the thousands of Saudis living in exile, serving as a chilling reminder that borders cannot protect people from dictators. People began to ask themselves: “Could what happened to Jamal happen to me?”

The Saudi regime thought that Jamal’s murder would silence its critics living abroad — but it is having the opposite effect. I say this from my own experience. Like Jamal, I have been living in self-imposed exile since 2017. I left Saudi Arabia to live in Australia because life at home had become untenable due to my activism. I was pushed out of my job and unable to secure another in the region.

Many others were faced with a similar choice. Since coming to power, the crown prince rolled out an array of seemingly “progressive” measures to modernize the kingdom, including deciding to lift the ban on women driving in June 2018. But he has used his reforms to hide his brutal crackdown on dissidents and human rights advocates.

One of these advocates is my friend and fellow women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018 and reportedly tortured in detention. She was studying in the United Arab Emirates when she was kidnapped and brought back to Saudi Arabia. She remains in prison and has been charged with “crimes” such as talking to foreign journalists and applying for a job at the United Nations. Her story, like Jamal’s, highlights the costs of our activism.

The Saudi diaspora of political dissidents has been growing since the crown prince rose to power. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 815 Saudis applied for asylum in 2017, compared with 195 in 2012. Internally, a study commissioned by the Saudi royal court reportedly predicted that the number of Saudi political asylum seekers would reach 50,000 by 2030.

The escalating crackdown against opponents of the crown prince has scared the growing number of Saudi dissidents living abroad — but it has not silenced us. We are now drawing on this fear to fuel an unprecedented civil, political and human rights dialogue around the world. Those who were once silent or anonymous are deciding to speak out.

And it is liberating. In April, I drove more than 3,000 miles across the United States to raise awareness about my country’s treatment of women. On the road from San Francisco to Washington, I met many people who had heard Jamal’s story but few who knew the stories of the women risking their safety and freedom in Saudi Arabia today. I shared Loujain’s name and story, telling people that just as they know of Jamal, they should know of her.

I planned to end my journey with a protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Ironically, this was scheduled to be soon after the first female Saudi ambassador to the United States took her post. I was surprised when the embassy’s spokesperson invited me inside to meet her. “I’ll meet you outside,” I replied, for I did not want to venture inside the embassy as long as Jamal’s murder went without justice. And then I realized that this is exactly what Saudi dissidents are already doing — confronting the Saudi government from the outside.

Jamal’s murder has left a gap that we Saudis in exile must fill. But as the Saudi diaspora finds its voice, I hope we can come together and stand united against the injustices we see back home.

Read more about Jamal Khashoggi:

A missing voice, a growing chorus

Robert Menendez: Trump betrayed U.S. moral leadership with Saudi Arabia. So Congress had to act.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Saudi Arabia is suffocating the Arabic public sphere. We must fight back.

Tawakkol Karman: We need justice for Yemen — and justice for Khashoggi

Hala Al-Dosari: Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has left the country fragile and unbalanced

Credits: Manal al-Sharif

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