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US 'disappointed' at Saudi decision to uphold travel ban on American citizen

State Department criticises ruling that bars Walid Fitaihi, a prominent doctor, from leaving the kingdom
Walid Fitaihi, best-known for his TV show dedicated to physical, mental and spiritual health, was arrested in 2017 (Screengrab/Twitter)

The United States has said it is "disappointed" with Saudi Arabia for upholding a travel ban against a dual American-Saudi citizen who was jailed for reportedly acquiring US citizenship without the kingdom's approval.

"We are disappointed by the news that a Saudi court has upheld a travel ban against US citizen Walid Fitaihi," the State Department said on Thursday, after a Saudi court decided that the physician would not be allowed to leave the kingdom.

"Our top priority is the protection of our fellow Americans. We will continue to advocate for a swift resolution of this case," it added.

Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained 56-year-old physician with a large social media following, was arrested in 2017 as part of a purge.  led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), that targeted dozens of businessmen and royals.

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He was sentenced to six years in jail in December 2020 but had his prison term cut almost by half the following month, with a six-year travel ban reduced to 38 months.

Days after his sentencing, US Senators Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy, Bob Menendez, Chris Van Hollen and Ron Wyden decried his incarceration, stating it was based on politically motivated charges.

Under MBS, the kingdom's de facto ruler, Saudi Arabia has detained activists, clerics and royal family members in a sweeping crackdown on dissent over the last three years.

The detentions have cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy that has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.

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As a presidential candidate, US President Joe Biden had condemned Saudi Arabia and called it a "pariah", joining much of his Democratic Party in calling for a rethinking of Washington's ties with the kingdom.

But, since taking office, Biden has refused to impose sanctions on MBS following the release of a US intelligence report that described the Saudi crown prince's alleged involvement in Khashoggi's murder.

On Wednesday, the daughter of former Saudi spy chief Saad al-Jabri pressed Biden to intervene in the case of her family members who have been detained in the kingdom while MBS pursues a "personal vendetta" against her father.

In an interview with CNN, Hissah al-Muzaini said two of her siblings, Sarah and Omar, along with her husband, Salem, were being held in prisons in the kingdom.

"We live in fear. We always look over our shoulder. We don't feel safe. I don't know how we can feel safe when people like this are chasing family members and sending hit squads and killing people in embassies and consulates," Muzaini said.

Jabri is waging a legal battle against MBS in a US court, alleging that the crown prince sent a hit team, known as the "Tiger Squad" and whose existence was first revealed by MEE, to assassinate him in Canada, where he and his daughter live in exile.

In a wide-ranging interview on CBS's 60 Minutes programme aired on Sunday, Jabri repeated those allegations and also said the prince had proudly boasted that he could kill former Saudi King Abdullah with a poison ring from Russia.

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