Khalid Aljabri, Lina al-Hathloul, and Abdullah Alaoudh grew up within a few blocks of each other in their Al-Falah neighborhood in Riyadh, but never knew each other.
On Friday, as Joseph Biden touched down in Jeddah, in their native Saudi Arabia, the three exiles met for the first time for a Middle Eastern breakfast in Arlington, Virginia, in the outskirts of Washington.
Oddly, it was Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who brought them together, and who Biden later on Friday greeted with a fist bump despite US intelligence agencies concluding he approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
While the trio come from markedly different families – Aljabri is the son of Saudi’s former intelligence chief; Alaoudh is the son a famous scholar and religious cleric, and Al-Hathloul’s sister Loujain has been an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights – each are prominent members of a Saudi diaspora that has called for Prince Mohammed to be isolated and for their own family members to be released from his clutches.
“We grew up walking distance from each other. Historically, my dad worked for the government. Abdullah’s father was a reformer, and Lina’s family was very liberal. In previous governments, these factions were played out against each other, but we are a new generation that can overcome the taboos that were forced upon us,” Aljabri said.
“The common denominator is MBS.”
Over breakfast, they talked about the neighborhood park where they used to take walks, not knowing how their lives would collide one day. “We talked about how MBS crushed Saudi civil society and how any government critique is forced into exile instead of being able do peaceful activism at home, safely,” Aljabri said. “We talked about how brave the Saudi diaspora are, because the price of criticising, for Khashoggi, was death.”
They talked, too, about the desire of Saudi’s youth wanting more than “bread and circuses”.
“They want to take an active role in deciding their future. They want representation in government,” Aljabri said.
Each has spoken out publicly against Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, a controversial presidential visit that has been criticised for breaking a campaign vow to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah”. For the assembled dissidents, the US president is “normalising” the Saudi crown prince and validating the perception that the young de facto ruler can, literally, get away with murder.
Biden has – until Friday – kept his distance from the crown prince, in part as retaliation for his role in ordering the gruesome murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist killed by Saudi agents.
Human rights defenders have said they are not optimistic that Biden’s trip, which is meant to strengthen strained ties between the US and Saudi Arabia at a time when Biden’s approval ratings have been hit by high oil prices, and the US is eager to counter Chinese and Russian influence, will deliver any human rights wins.
In Washington, few understand how high the stakes are more than the assembled trio. Aljabri’s sister and brother – Sara and Omar – have been held in Saudi since 2020 as part of a Saudi campaign against their father, Saad Aljabri. The senior Aljabri – now in exile in Canada – was a close adviser to Mohammed bin Nayef, a former crown prince and interior minister who is being held in Saudi Arabia and has been seen as a potential political rival to Prince Mohammed. He is also been involved in litigation against entities associated with the crown prince.
“I expect to be killed one day because this guy will not rest until he sees me dead,” Aljabri said on 60 Minutes last year.
Lina Al-Hathloul’s sister, Loujain, is one of Saudi’s most famous human rights defenders. In 2018, Loujain was one of several women activists arrested for speaking out against a driving ban. When Biden entered the White House, one of his first public announcements was that Loujain – who has alleged she was tortured while in confinement – had been released from prison. But her family – including Lina, who lives in Europe – are still campaigning for a travel ban against her to be lifted.
Abdullah Alaoudh’s father, Salman, was known as a reformist scholar and was arrested in 2017, hours after referring to his desire for reconciliation between Saudi and Qatar in a tweet. After holding him for a year without charges, Salman Alaoudh was ultimately accused of inciting the public against Prince Mohammed, calling for a change of government, and possessing banned books. Now his son Abdullah, who lives in the US, serves as the research director of Dawn, a non-profit that promotes democracy in the Middle East that was founded by Khashoggi.
After their meeting, Khalid Aljabri considered what an alternative reality could have looked like, if all three were still in Saudi and not in exile, and if Prince Mohammed had not used “collective punishment” against family members of his perceived enemies.
“I would have been a cardiologist working 80-hour weeks. Abdullah would have been a lawyer and an academic. Lina would have been among the first female lawyers, fighting for reform of the male guardianship system,” he said. “It’s all so needless.”
July 15, 2022 at 11:24PM Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington