Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 35-year-old aid worker, was arrested more than a year ago in Saudi Arabia and has had no contact with his family since. His sister Areej al-Sadhan recently took the unusual step of publicizing his case. (Family photo)

Only after her brother had been gone for months, after the confounding silence of officials in Saudi Arabia about his fate and the rumors he was being abused in prison, did Areej al-Sadhan turn to what she considered a last and painful resort.

 She went public.  

 Sadhan decided to give interviews to the foreign news media and post appeals online, hoping the attention would prod the Saudi government into revealing the status of her brother, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 35-year-old aid worker who was arrested more than a year ago. Saudi authorities strongly discourage families from seeking publicity, and she feared they might retaliate against her or her brother. Her decision also seemed likely to invite a torrent of insults from the kingdom’s defenders online.  

“We tried everything possible,” she said in a telephone interview from California, where she lives. “I felt like all the doors were shut in my face.”

She was not alone. Over the past year, relatives of several other people held by Saudi Arabia, exasperated by long detentions or the absence of formal charges, have made the difficult and unusual decision to speak openly about the cases. In doing so, they have ignored the long-held notion that the royal family, with its penchant for privacy, responds better to private entreaties than public scolding. 

Several relatives said they went public after trying, and failing, to find back doors to government officials. 

Their frustrations are the consequence of the changes being wrought by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is making the kingdom more authoritarian than in the past, critics say, even as he is relaxing some strict social codes. The profiles of these families reflect the breadth of Mohammed’s crackdown, which began in earnest in September 2017 and has led to the arrests of people for their dissent, their prominence or for reasons that remain a mystery to their families and the public.

The decision-making by the kingdom’s leaders seems increasingly unpredictable, relatives say, and thus the risk of staying quiet even greater.

Some said the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in October — a once unthinkable act of brutality against a critic of the government — also hastened their decisions to speak up. Saudi officials say the agents had disobeyed orders to bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia alive, and several are now on trial.     

Some relatives said their families had previously stayed far from politics and taken care not to attract the attention of Saudi law enforcement. Others were speaking up for family members who are prominent activists.

For the crown prince, some of the arrests have served as a useful way to send messages to segments of Saudi society — to discourage other would-be activists, for example, or to assuage religious conservatives alarmed at some of the social changes Mohammed has championed, analysts say.    

But the scale of the clampdown may have created a new headache for the Saudi leadership: a small but growing cohort of relatives who have shined a light on arrests the government would prefer be kept quiet, presenting an unflattering portrait of the kingdom.

A Saudi government media office did not respond to questions about the status of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan and several other detainees.  

All the relatives interviewed said they hoped to retain their ties with Saudi Arabia, despite their decision to go public. None have reported any retaliation by Saudi authorities, though some, like Areej al-Sadhan, could not say how their relatives in detention were being treated.

After the siblings of Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist, began speaking publicly this year about her detention and allegations that she had been tortured, they were met with harsh criticism that they were damaging Saudi Arabia’s image abroad.  

Before talking to the media, “we addressed all the competent authorities, and we did not receive any response,” Hathloul’s sister, Alia al-Hathloul, wrote on Twitter in March, responding to a Saudi journalist who accused the family of spreading lies about prison abuse.  

Downplaying the allegations of torture is “not in the interest of the nation,” Alia added, striking a delicate balance. She was careful not to criticize the government, arguing instead that someone in law enforcement might be breaking their own rules.

Saudi officials have denied torturing any of the detainees.  

In speaking out, relatives have also been thrust into an unfamiliar role as advocates. Alia, a working mother of two who lives in Brussels, has a day job at an energy company. Areej al-Sadhan works at a technology company.

“I have never been an activist,” she said. A decade ago, before she left Saudi Arabia and moved to the United States, she had been supportive of giving women the right to drive. But in California, “I stopped following the politics of Saudi Arabia. I focused on getting my master’s degree, on my life. Now I have to pay attention, to what changed — what happened there,” she said.

Ahmad Fitaihi, 26, was in the coastal city of Jiddah, mulling his future, when the authorities arrested his father, Walid Fitaihi, the founder of a prominent hospital, in November 2017.

The arrest occurred as the authorities rounded up hundreds of business executives, government officials and some members of the royal family and imprisoned them at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

“We tried to appeal to the government. We tried all the intermediaries,” said Fitaihi, who like his father, holds dual Saudi and U.S. citizenship. “We did everything privately in order not to make a fuss,” he said. Lawyers were not able to visit his father, he said, and no charges were filed. After Fitaihi received reports early last year that his father was being tortured, “my hand was forced,” he said.


Ahmad Fitaihi, right, meets with Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) on Feb. 12. Fitaihi, 26, has lobbied U.S. lawmakers and the Trump administration for assistance in freeing his father, Walid Fitaihi, who has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since November 2017. (Courtesy of Ahmad Fitaihi)

He eventually agreed to give interviews to the news media, contacted members of the U.S. Congress and even testified on Capitol Hill. Saudi friends and relatives “told me not to do it. They are all scared,” he said.

“I didn’t ask permission,” he added. “I don’t take pleasure in doing this. All I wish is for my father to be released and my family to be reunited again.”

The families speak out with no guarantee that publicity is an effective strategy. But at the very least, their tactics appear to have increased pressure on the Saudi leadership. The Trump administration said it has repeatedly raised the issue of Walid Fitaihi’s imprisonment with the Saudi government. And U.S. lawmakers, swayed by the testimony of relatives, have pressed the White House to advocate on behalf of the women’s rights activists and other imprisoned dissidents.

When Malak al-Shehri went public, she was accustomed to the spotlight. Shehri, who was active in the Saudi feminist movement, was arrested in 2016 after tweeting a picture of herself standing on a Riyadh street without the traditional body covering known as an abaya. She had opposed Saudi Arabia’s moral codes, then strictly enforced.

Her husband, Ayman al-Drees, whom she met after she was released from prison, was not a well-known activist. He was a linguist, dabbled as a translator and had a day job as an insurance underwriter. He posted videos on his YouTube channel but otherwise kept his head down, Shehri said, busying himself with work. “He didn’t want to be in trouble,” she said.

Drees was arrested this month, along with at least a dozen other people, for reasons that authorities have not disclosed.

After his arrest, Shehri quickly publicized her husband’s case on Twitter, showing an activist’s reflex. But she worried over the decision as she weighed conflicting advice, she said. Some people argued that publicity would only make things worse. But families that had kept quiet had not had any more luck freeing relatives.

“There is nothing good about being quiet,” she said. “We really don’t know what to do. We want to help. We’re confused.”

In the end, she let one conviction guide her. “I know Ayman is someone who does not want to be forgotten,” she said.