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Opinion The Biden administration’s Saudi problem

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks in the capital, Riyadh, in October 2018. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)

As the Biden administration seeks a better pathway in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, one obstacle is the case of two young Saudis imprisoned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to pressure their father, a former top Saudi intelligence official.

Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, has been trying to force the former intelligence official, Saad Aljabri, to return to the kingdom from Toronto, where he has been living in exile. Two of his children, Omar and Sarah Aljabri, 22 and 20, were arrested and imprisoned last March. Saad Aljabri’s eldest son Khalid, a cardiologist who lives with his father in exile, said they are being used as “political hostages” to secure the former official’s return.

Read this piece in Arabic.

With the transition to a new administration, Khalid Aljabri argued in an email to me, securing his siblings’ freedom “will be the U.S.’s most accurate litmus test for their ability to influence and alter the behavior of MBS.”

Despite President Donald Trump’s strong support for MBS, the State Department said in August that pressuring the Aljabri children was “unacceptable” and urged their immediate release, according to a letter provided by the Aljabri family. The letter said that any Saudi allegations against Aljabri “should be addressed through established legal channels with full transparency.”

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The sensitive case now falls to the Biden administration, which wants to maintain the U.S. security partnership with Saudi Arabia but also seeks a “reassessment” that puts greater emphasis on human rights issues.

“The State Department will continue to make clear to Saudi authorities that any prosecution of Aljabri's family is unacceptable,” a senior State Department official told me Sunday. “Similarly, we are concerned by the circumstances that led to [Saad Aljabri’s] exile in Canada. We will continue to raise these concerns with senior Saudi officials.”

The Biden administration is deeply troubled by the case and wants to send that message to the Saudis. Because the prosecution of Aljabri’s children began long before the election, officials don’t see it as a direct challenge to Biden. But as they review the totality of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, officials will be looking closely at Riyadh’s human rights record and any steps it takes in the right direction.

The Aljabri case darkened in recent weeks; Omar and Sarah were convicted in a secret trial in November for allegedly laundering money and plotting to escape the kingdom, and sentenced to nine and 6½ years in prison, according to Khalid Aljabri. He said the Saudi charge was false, because it treated his siblings’ normal living allowances while minors as something improper, and he noted the supposed escape plan came while the country’s borders were closed because of covid-19.

Khalid Aljabri also said the Saudi prosecutor didn’t present any direct evidence that his siblings had committed these crimes, and that the lawyer hired to represent them wasn’t allowed to meet with his clients at their undisclosed detention sites.

Last week, the case disappeared from the official online registry of Saudi criminal cases, but the family wasn’t sure what this signaled.

One reason U.S. officials, through two administrations, have been so concerned about the case is that Saad Aljabri was a key partner for the CIA in its counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda. A July 2020 letter to Trump from a bipartisan group of four senators noted that Aljabri “has been credited by former CIA officials for saving thousands of American lives by discovering and preventing terrorist plots.”

The senators stressed: “We believe the U.S. has a moral obligation to do what it can to assist in securing his children’s release.”

The Aljabri children were among MBS’s first targets when he seized power on June 21, 2017, deposing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had been Saad Aljabri’s patron. The children were stopped at the Riyadh airport that day. Sarah, then 17, was prevented from leaving the country; her brother Omar, then 18, refused to depart without her. The two were on their way to school in the United States, where their father was then living.

Saad Aljabri pleaded with MBS to lift the travel ban. The crown prince didn’t respond at first, but he messaged Aljabri in September 2017: “I want to resolve this problem of your son and daughter, but this is a very sensitive file here,” according to a translation provided by the family. Aljabri took that as a reference to the former crown prince, whom MBS has accused of conspiring with Aljabri to skim money from secret intelligence funds. Aljabri and Mohammed bin Nayef have denied the charges through their lawyers.

When Aljabri balked at MBS’s request for cooperation in the September 2017 exchange, the crown prince warned that he would seek Aljabri’s arrest through an Interpol warrant or “other means that would be harmful to you,” according to correspondence provided by the family.

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney offered to mediate in November 2017 and visited the White House to discuss the case with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, according to Khalid Aljabri. He said that Kushner responded, through Mulroney: “It is a toxic situation, everyone has so much on the other.”

The Saudi government went ahead with its request for an Interpol warrant for Aljabri, alleging corruption. But an Interpol commission rejected the request in July 2018. The commission noted in its ruling that “unjustified restrictive measures on his family suggest that the case is politically motivated rather than strictly juridical.”

Saad Aljabri sued MBS in August 2020 in federal district court in Washington, hoping to force a judicial resolution of the case or a settlement negotiation. The day the suit was filed, the Trump State Department sent its extraordinary letter of support for Aljabri, calling him “a valued partner to the U.S. government, working closely with us to ensure the safety of Americans.” The letter argued that “any persecution of … Aljabri’s family members is unacceptable.”

The Biden administration wants to maintain a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, just as the Trump administration did. But any reset should address the broad bipartisan concern in Washington about Saudi human rights abuses. The bogus case against Aljabri’s children would be a good place to start.

Read more:

David Ignatius: This former intelligence official was a hero. He’s now the target of a brutal campaign by MBS.

Abdullah Alaoudh: Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination cannot be pardoned

The Post’s View: The MBS paradox is on full display

Fred Hiatt: Mohammed bin Salman is a mystery, but his impact on Saudi Arabia is brutally obvious

Jackson Diehl: Trump’s embrace of Mohammed bin Salman is now costing him dearly