Reem Sulaiman fell foul of Saud al-Qahtani and Riyadh's crackdown on dissent. She talks exclusively to MEE about her experience
For a moment, late last year, it appeared as if Saudi Arabia might be on the verge of a sea change.
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder had drawn the world’s attention to the human rights abuses and crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s international stock plummeting as a result.
Yet today those same people responsible for Khashoggi’s assassination are still wielding power, according to another outspoken Saudi commentator, Reem Sulaiman.
Sulaiman, like her slain compatriot before her, has been forced into exile after her words caught the eye of top royal aide Saud al-Qahtani.
A close confidant of the crown prince, Qahtani has been implicated in Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudi prosecutor. He has been sanctioned by several Saudi allies, including the United States.
The main initiator of the wave of abuses exercised against activists and opponents inside the kingdom is still in power
- Reem Sulaiman
Speaking exclusively to Middle East Eye from the Netherlands, where she is seeking asylum, Sulaiman says Qahtani’s influence is undiminished, however.
"The main initiator of the wave of abuses exercised against activists and opponents inside the kingdom is still in power,” Sulaiman tells MEE.
“I am referring to Saud al-Qahtani, the former adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, because he controls Twitter and is responsible for directing editors all over the country."
Qahtani, who with Mohammed bin Salman’s blessing waged an information war against any Saudi voice that diverged from the royal court’s preferred line, has vanished from the public eye since the Khashoggi scandal broke in October.
Unlike women’s rights activists and other Saudis whose views have been deemed dangerous by Riyadh’s rulers, however, Qahtani apparently walks free.
According to the Washington Post, the crown prince regularly seeks advice from him still.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly still in contact with Saud al-Qahtani (Reuters)
Life in the Saudi royal court, it appears, is almost unchanged.
Any hope that the added international scrutiny the kingdom now faces would relax its approach or limit the power of its 33-year-old crown prince has ebbed away – particularly following a cabinet reshuffle that, if anything, cemented his power.
“The country is run by a totalitarian regime and no one can make a decision without the consent of those with higher authority,” Sulaiman says, lamenting the “extremely terrible and unbelievable” situation her country finds itself in.
But like many Saudis, Sulaiman is unsure that the problem lies with the heir to the Saudi throne himself. She questions whether the brutal suffocation of independent voices is the crown prince’s initiative, or those around him.
“I ask the same question to myself every day: ‘Could Prince Mohammad bin Salman be satisfied with what is happening, or are these the practices of Saud al-Qahtani and his criminal tools?’”
Raised in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Sulaiman carved a career for herself as a columnist in several government-controlled newspapers, such as Mecca, al-Wiam and Anha.
Unlike Khashoggi, she was not widely known. Though she wrote for papers close to the ruling family, she was far from a royal court insider.
Her columns were not controversial, or so she thought.
What bothered them was that my writings spring from my own conscience, not what the adviser Saud al-Qahtani wants
- Reem Sulaiman
But last summer, one of Qahtani’s assistants approached Sulaiman, handing her a gag order that came straight from the crown prince’s aide.
What she wrote to attract such attention remains a mystery to her, though she suspects they were wary of her independent mind.
“What bothered them was that my writings spring from my own conscience, not what the adviser Saud al-Qahtani wants,” Sulaiman says.
Saudi limits on free expression are nothing new.
The strangulation of independent intellectual thought has, though, intensified considerably since Mohammed bin Salman rose to power in 2017.
The Saudi censorship campaign is noticeable for its brutality and viciousness. Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment is the most obvious and chilling example of Riyadh’s zero-tolerance policy.
Also significant is the way it ruthlessly targets opinions that diverge just the slightest from the official line.
“Every intellectual and writer who has not participated in the treasonous campaigns and misleading of public opinion that the country is still witnessing has been targeted,” Sulaiman says.
Women walk past a poster of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during Janadriyah Cultural Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh (Reuters)
Shocked and shaken by Qahtani’s order, Sulaiman ceased writing. But soon after, her home was stormed by men "armed to the teeth", and she was detained.
For two days Sulaiman was interrogated, insulted and subjected to what she calls “psychological abuse”. Her captors questioned her about her articles and tweets.
To this day she cannot understand why she was put through this ordeal, after following her instructions to the letter.
“It is the question no one can answer. Arrests and hindrance of expression are not limited by specific laws or regulations,” she says.
Why else, Sulaiman notes, would economist Essam al-Zamil be arrested just after returning from the US with an official delegation.
“It is the same case for Sheikh Muhammad al-Arifi, whose advocacy and academic activities were stopped and he was placed under house arrest,” she recalls.
Today Sulaiman is some 5,500km from Riyadh, Qahtani and his henchmen. Safe in the Netherlands, she has used her exile as an opportunity to reflect on her experience and highlight the campaign of fear being wrought in her country.
Last month, she took to Twitter, detailing her detainment, interrogation, gagging and eventual escape via Bahrain.
“I did that because of what I have been through, as well as the information that my interrogators told me themselves about the horrific and appalling violations many female detainees have been subjected to,” she explains.
“I put my humanity to the test... Should I reveal this and shed light on their sufferings, or opt for silence and betray my principles and those subjected to the torturers’ whip?”
Her choice has not been without consequences.
Immediately after she began her now-infamous thread, a legion of accounts began attacking her online – a familiar tactic used by Saudi authorities to discredit their opponents.
This Twitter army of bots and trolls, apparently created at Qahtani’s behest, is known as “the flies”.
“No one who has criticised, objected to or revealed the injustice they were subject to has been immune to them,” Sulaiman acknowledges.
“I just thank God that it did not develop into killing and dismemberment, like the case of the martyr Jamal Khashoggi.”
Top royal aide Saud al-Qahtani (Screenshot)
Online, Sulaiman has been accused of being an agent of Qatar, the gas-rich state on Saudi Arabia’s eastern border with which the kingdom is locked in a dramatic feud.
“If I had wished to be an agent, I would have chosen to stay in my country and be an agent of the Saudi government,” she argues.
“Then I would benefit from the privileges, extravagant salaries and close ties with the royal court’s top advisers.”
“As for being a Qatari agent,” she adds, “it is a ready-made accusation for every critic or opponent, as was the case before the Gulf crisis, when people were accused of being an agent of the Houthis, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
If I had wished to be an agent, I would have chosen to stay in my country and be an agent of the Saudi government
- Reem Sulaiman
Another line of attack she has faced is the accusation that she is not Saudi at all, a tactic employed with Khashoggi before her.
The claim is “ridiculous”, she says, “and deserves no response”.
“I still receive threats, but not at the same pace as the first few days after I announced I had left the country and disclosed what happened to me.
“However, I think I will receive new threats if I become active in the media again, or make television appearances in particular.”
Living in fear
Khashoggi’s fate looms large in Sulaiman’s imagination, and she fears the “Gaddafi-like recklessness” of the Saudi rulers he described before falling victim to it himself.
Despite this, she continues to feel the pull of responsibility: to speak out, and defend the activists, writers, dissidents and unfortunates who are still behind bars back in Saudi Arabia.
Her regret, she says, is that she must do this far from home.
“I must sadly admit that the Saudi government has left no choice for activists and others except leaving the country. As an intellectual interested in public affairs, you can either join the flow of praise, leave the country, or be detained in prison. Even opting for silence is no longer an adequate decision,” she says.
“In fact, the kingdom's prisons are full of activists from different movements, orientations and sects. Everyone is terrified.
“Many people wish to leave the country, but some are banned from travel and others fear being arrested at the airport on charges of trying to escape and join the opposition abroad.”
The alternative of incarceration is clearly worse.
Women’s rights activists, most of whom were arrested in tandem with the kingdom’s much-publicised decision to allow women to drive, have reportedly been subjected to sexual abuse in detainment.
Qahtani, who visited Sulaiman’s mother in an attempt to pressure her into a false confession, personally oversaw the torture of one female activist, according to reports.
“The human rights situation is at its most difficult and worst. There is no supervisory body defending the rights of detainees in prisons. Prisoners are not allowed to have a lawyer, and occasional visits from families are banned as well,” the columnist says.
“What has been published about the abuses cannot be the end of the story, and I think there are still more terrible and horrible incidents yet to be confirmed, even killings.”
A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holds 'the royal bone saw' outside the White House (AFP)
For now, Sulaiman sees no immediate way to end the mounting abuses.
“We are not living with real state institutions and democracy is not being implemented,” she notes. “The people have no say or opinion.”
Nevertheless, she says international pressure can help, and welcomed the recent demand issued by British MPs to visit detained activists. On Thursday, the cross-party group said Riyadh failed to respond to its request.
The application process for official asylum in the Netherlands is ongoing, but Sulaiman is confident she will be successful.
She does intend to return home one day though, when the time is right.
“When prisoners of conscience come out of prisons and activists can express their views,” she says.
“When Saudi Arabia becomes a safe place for its citizens, and guarantees their freedom, dignity and lives.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.