Monday, January 17th | 15 Shevat 5782

July 20, 2020 7:47 am

Free Speech in Saudi Arabia? Not If You Support Israel

avatar by Edy Cohen


A view of a deserted street, during a curfew imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia April 2, 2020. Picture taken April 2, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Yasser Bakhsh.

In media appearances that shook conservative Saudi Arabia, Saudi journalist and commentator Abdul Hameed Ghabin came out strongly against Iran and against the Palestinians. His public appearances, in which he expressed support for Israel and its proposed sovereignty plan for parts of the Jordan Valley, embarrassed the Saudi rulers. (In this video, Ghabin comments on Israeli plans to annex the Jordan Valley and says he and other Saudis support the move.)

In response, the regime framed Ghabin on false charges and incarcerated him, probably for many years.

Ghabin was the first Saudi journalist to publish an opinion piece in an Israeli newspaper. That article almost caused a diplomatic incident between the Saudis and the Jordanians, because it contained a proposal to transfer management of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Saudis. The Jordanians were furious, and Ghabin was reprimanded.

No Saudi can express him or herself freely. “Big Brother” is watching and listening to every word. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who ran afoul of the Saudi leadership, is still a recent memory. There is no such thing as a Saudi opposition party.

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Ghabin did not oppose the Saudi regime, but his media appearances made decision-makers in Riyadh uncomfortable — mainly because of the ire it raised among the Palestinian leadership, who complained bitterly about him.

Ghabin had been in the authorities’ sights for quite some time. They feared his sway over his readers and listeners, especially because he’s considered one of the most influential Saudi journalists of recent years.

The authorities put an end to Ghabin’s media appearances, but they didn’t stop there. A few months ago, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry informed him it was revoking his citizenship. Though this was illegal (according to Saudi law, citizenship can only be revoked by the royal family), Ghabin had no recourse.

The citizenship revocation had an immediate impact on his life as well as those of his children. The day after the announcement, his children’s school barred them from attending class.

Then something worse happened. Ghabin was arrested and incarcerated on trumped-up charges of committing espionage on behalf of a foreign country and falsifying documents to obtain Saudi citizenship. The foreign country referenced is almost certainly Israel. These charges could send Ghabin to prison for at least 10 years.

Before his arrest, the authorities sought to incriminate Ghabin by accusing him of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. They combed his Twitter account to find incriminating material to justify putting him in jail. As they found no such evidence, they resorted to simply inventing false accusations.

On June 17, 2020, just days before his arrest, Ghabin feared being “bumped off” or kidnapped. He posted only these words: “I’m being kidnapped.” That was his last post. It was deleted a few days ago, though his account still exists.

Much has been made of thawing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two nations that are cooperating more and more in an effort to thwart Iranian ambitions in the region.

But Ghabin crossed a Saudi red line. The Kingdom’s authorities demand that any relations between a Saudi citizen and the State of Israel be governed strictly by them. The Saudi rulers feared his bold push toward fully normalized Saudi-Israeli relations, and were alarmed by his willingness to criticize the Palestinians in public.

Ghabin’s abduction by the regime was an act of tyranny, and it illustrates the lack of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia — though perhaps he was ahead of his time, and will yet be seen as a positive example.

It is urgent that all steps be taken to secure Ghabin’s immediate release from Saudi prison. All organizations that care about human rights should be working on his behalf. For the crime of trying to exercise freedom of speech, Ghabin is now paying a heavy price.

Saudi Arabia purports to have a vision for the future, but it continues to suppress progress when it occurs.

Dr. Edy Cohen is a researcher at the BESA Center and author of the book The Holocaust in the Eyes of Mahmoud Abbas (Hebrew).

A version of this article was originally published by Israel Today and The BESA Center.

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