The Metropolitan Police in London warned me in 2018 that my life was in danger and provided me with a panic-button system. If I send an alert, the police said, they will feel free to break down my door because they will assume I’m being attacked. Whenever I leave Britain, where I was granted asylum two years ago, I must be careful, for fear of being kidnapped and returned to Saudi Arabia.
Such threats are common for Saudis who publicly criticize the royal family. Readers of The Post know this too well: Contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi royal family, was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
The news this week that the Saudis had reportedly hacked the smartphone of Post owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos sounded familiar. I learned two years ago that spyware had been secretly installed on my smartphones, feeding information to a Saudi-controlled server. Deciding that, at last, I had found a way to try to hold the Saudi government accountable, I filed a lawsuit in Britain in November.
I couldn’t have imagined reaching this point when I left my homeland in 2003. I was simply seeking freedom. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family controls every aspect of life. If you want to go to university, open a business or get an eye operation, you will need a letter from the governor of your province — a member of the royal family. Freedom of speech is out of the question. Expressing an unpopular opinion can mean being arrested, tortured or killed. With thousands of members, the House of Saud doesn’t want the state to function independently from it. It’s how the royal family maintains complete control.
I had to find a way out. At age 23, I moved to Britain to study at the Meridian School of English in Portsmouth. When I arrived, I was shocked. In Saudi Arabia, Britain is portrayed as being a place of nonbelievers, where people are no better than animals. Instead, I found many good and decent people, who can live and speak freely. I began to wonder what other lies I had been told while growing up.
At first, I kept my opposition to the Saudi regime quiet, but as time passed, I felt the need to speak up for those who still suffered inside the kingdom. In 2012, during the Arab Spring, Saudi citizens on social media began demanding their rights. That took courage. I supported the campaign and featured in a widely viewed YouTube video speaking directly to the king at the time, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, telling him that he — and not the regime’s critics — should be in prison.
After that, I started a YouTube channel called “GhanemTube,” criticizing the royal family. YouTube quickly shut it down after the Saudis complained. I then set up the “Ghanem Show.” It, too, was shut down, but I challenged the decision, and it was reinstated after YouTube investigated the complaints.
As the channel’s popularity increased, so did the harassment.
My website was hacked, with my display picture changed to an image of King Salman with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the true power in Saudi Arabia. The hacker added derogatory comments and bragged that the hacking process took only 20 minutes. I think the invasion, and the bragging, was meant to intimidate me by showing how easily the Saudi government could gain access to my life.
In 2018, I was physically attacked on a London street by two men. They angrily told me not to insult the crown prince. I reported the assault to the police, but no arrests have been made.
When my smartphones began behaving erratically two years ago, a friend said it was a possible sign of spyware. The cybersecurity watchdog group Citizen Lab checked the phones and discovered that they had been secretly loaded with a program that allowed surveillance of all my communications and movements. The point of entry was a fake link concerning a package delivery. It was tracked back to Saudi Arabia.
Knowing that the Saudis have been spying on me and had complete access to my private life has had a huge impact on me personally. That is why I’m suing the Saudi government. I’m seeking damages — and an apology. The invasion of my privacy has left me in fear for my personal safety. But I am more concerned about the people who still live in Saudi Arabia and whose messages might have been read by the regime and are now associated with me. I fear their lives are now at risk.