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Opinion A daring flight to safety — and a story Biden should tell MBS

Rakan Aldosseri, left, with his father, Nader Aldosseri. (Nader Aldosseri)
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The saga of a Saudi American teenager named Rakan Aldosseri is a small untold chapter in the catalogue of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. But it explains in simple terms why President Biden should demand greater accountability when he meets this month with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Aldosseri story has some unlikely details — including the boy’s unsuccessful personal video plea to President Biden last year, followed by his dangerous flight to safety across the barren desert of the Empty Quarter in eastern Saudi Arabia. At bottom, it’s simply one more example of the dangers facing Saudi citizens who offend the kingdom’s leader.

Aldosseri’s problems began after he joined his father, Nader, in suing the kingdom in 2020 to assert their hereditary claims in a dispute over a 1995 refinery deal in St. Lucia. It was a humdrum legal matter, except that one of defendants named in the commercial action was MBS, as the crown prince is known.

The kingdom sought to dismiss MBS from the suit on the grounds that he enjoyed sovereign immunity — a tricky question for a person who isn’t formally head of state and one that U.S. courts have never resolved. And then bad things began to happen.

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A Saudi Embassy spokesman in Washington declined to comment for this column.

On May 20, 2021, Rakan and his father planned to fly from Riyadh to Washington, leaving behind other family members. Young Aldosseri, a U.S. citizen who lives in the Pittsburgh area, told me in an interview that he wanted to attend summer camp. He was 13 at the time.

The kingdom’s covid-related travel ban had just been lifted; father and son had their boarding passes for Dulles International Airport outside D.C. But they were stopped at passport control, and after an hour’s delay, informed they couldn’t board.

“We were told … there was a ban on us being able to leave the country … I was later informed that the travel restrictions were imposed by the royal court,” Nader Aldosseri said in a court filing last year.

Frightened by the incident, Rakan sent a video plea on June 9 to the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. “Dear President Biden,” he said in a transcript of the video. “Me and my family are now hostages inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. … As a law-abiding citizen, I have done nothing wrong and the only thing I have been focusing on is to get good grades at school. ... I believe that MBS is punishing me and my family for seeking our rights in a U.S. federal court.”

Citing the Biden administration’s pledge to free all U.S. hostages, Rakan beseeched Biden: “Please free me and my family … please protect us from MBS … please bring us home.” Nader Aldosseri received a message from a State Department employee in Riyadh that same day the video was received. “I will share [the video] with the Embassy and with Washington,” he said.

But the Biden administration was silent, and the Aldosseris were getting desperate. They knew what had happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post contributor who had offended MBS and been killed in Istanbul in an October 2018 operation approved by the crown prince, according to the CIA. Not wanting to tempt a similar fate, the Aldosseris made a bold decision to flee.

Their first plan was to ride two Sea Doo jet skis across the approximately 40-mile bay that separates the Saudi mainland from the small island kingdom of Bahrain. But the Aldosseris worried that they would be attacked by sharks or arrested by the Saudi coast guard on the way, so they abandoned the plan.

The Aldosseris’s second escape plan was even more audacious. Nader Aldosseri contacted a group of smugglers. They took him and Rakan to a staging area in southern Saudi Arabia and organized a fake hunting trip in rugged SUVs through the eastern dessert — buying sheep to eat on the trip and other provisions. Nader Aldosseri left his cellphone back in Riyadh to confuse any pursuers. The escapade cost nearly $30,000, but the two felt they had no choice.

The trip across the desolate dunes of the Empty Quarter took several days, skirting the kingdom’s southern border. The two escapees were stopped by Saudi police — who, to their relief, just warned them not to shoot any gazelles or other protected animals. In late June, they crossed into a neighboring Persian Gulf country.

They planned to fly from there to a regional hub and then on to the United States — Rakan using his U.S. passport and Nader using another gulf passport he had received years before. But a diligent passport officer noticed that their pre-travel PCR tests had been administered in Saudi Arabia and stopped them for further questioning. “I thought this was the end,” Nader Aldosseri told me. The authorities eventually cleared father and son.

When the two landed at the transit point, they once again thought they were home free. But this time, a passport officer noticed that Nader’s U.S. visa had some mismatched transliterations from Arabic. Nader Aldosseri recalls that he turned sadly to Rakan: “My son, this is it.” But once again, the authorities let the two pass. They arrived at Dulles in late June, the first Saudis who successfully escaped an MBS travel ban, as far as I know.

Now in the United States, the Aldosseris’s first priority was to get Rakan’s mother and sister to safety, too. They arrived in July. But in October, after the family disclosed their escape, Nader’s brother back in Saudi Arabia was briefly arrested and interrogated, other family members were blocked from traveling, and Nader says his bank accounts were frozen.

Rakan, now 14, told me he still hasn’t heard anything from Biden in response to his video plea, sent more than a year ago. He’d like to visit his grandmother and other relatives, but his father says it’s too dangerous.

Maybe when Biden meets with MBS, he will find the strength and decency to say what Rakan — along with the Khashoggi family and so many thousands of other oppressed Saudis — have been waiting to hear: Enough is enough.

Biden should ask MBS for a commitment that these abuses of human rights will never happen again.

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