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Saudi economist who criticised Aramco sale charged with terrorism

'The oil is owned by the people,' Essam al-Zamil wrote on Twitter before his arrest last year
A tanker loads at Aramco's Ras Tanura refinery and terminal in Saudi Arabia (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor has charged a man, identified by activists as a prominent economist who once criticised plans to float shares of Saudi Aramco, for joining a "terrorist organisation" and meeting with foreign diplomats.

Local media, including Arabic-language newspaper Okaz, reported on Monday that the accusations include membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood as well as communicating with neighbouring Qatar and inciting protests inside Saudi Arabia.

The reports did not name the suspect, but a personal friend, London-based Saudi rights group ALQST, and a network of activists dedicated to monitoring and documenting people they describe as "prisoners of conscience," confirmed his identity.

"They meant Essam al-Zamil," ALQST's Yahya al-Assiri told Reuters.

A Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zamil has been detained since September 2017 along with dozens of intellectuals and clerics in a crackdown on potential opponents of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose ambitious economic reform programme centred on selling up to five percent of the state-owned Aramco oil company.

In a series of social media posts before his arrest, Zamil said the $2 trillion valuation for Aramco suggested by Prince Mohammed would require the authorities to include the company's oil reserves in the sale.

Zamil, a renowned economist and entrepreneur, had said that it was not logical to sell Saudis' oil reserves.

"The oil is owned by the people," he wrote in a tweet that he deleted shortly after posting. "A decision like this (selling oil reserves) should not happen without the consent of everyone."

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Reuters reported in August that the government had called off the IPO plans and disbanded financial advisers working on what had been billed as the biggest stock flotation in history.

Efforts to wean the world's top oil exporter off crude and open up Saudis' cloistered lifestyles have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent. The authorities also arrested scores of top businessmen and officials last November in what they dubbed an anti-corruption campaign, though most of them were later released after reaching financial settlements.

All public protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, as are political parties. Labour unions are illegal, the media are controlled and criticism of the royal family can lead to prison.

The charges against Zamil, according to Okaz, include giving foreign diplomats "information and analysis about the kingdom" without informing the authorities or obtaining permission from them.

The report did not provide details, but that accusation echoes state media's labelling of women's rights activists arrested in May as traitors and "agents of embassies," which unnerved diplomats in Saudi Arabia.

The charge of communicating with "an element of the Qatari regime" comes amid a 15-month boycott of that country by Saudi Arabia and its allies over alleged ties to terrorism, which Doha denies.

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