Living under Al Saud

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2 years ago, a Saudi princess was kidnapped and jailed without charge.

Her family say they're being stonewalled, and are urging Biden to step in.


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On February 28, 2019, shortly before her 54th birthday, Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was kidnapped and imprisoned without charge in her native Saudi Arabia.

Basmah, an activist and businesswoman — and a member of the royal family — was abducted by Saudi state agents from her seafront penthouse in Jeddah that night, and has been detained a high-security prison in Riyadh ever since.

Now, more than two years later, her family says they're being stonewalled by authorities in Riyadh, and are urging President Joe Biden to step in.

Her condition was unknown until April 27, 2020, when she broke her silence on Twitter to beg her cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, for mercy.


Her communications were subsequently cut but, as Insider has reported, she was able to reconnect with her son on May 13, 2021. It had been her first contact with the family in more than a year.

Basmah's family has turned to the Saudi government for answers, but is coming away empty handed.

"They always say the same thing: that there's no comment and no response," one close family member told Insider. The person asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety, but their identity is known to Insider.

Basmah's family and business associates have also toiled to get the US to intervene, but they say former President Donald Trump's administration was uninterested.


As Saudi Arabia's foremost western ally, Basmah's family hoped the US would use its position to sway the Saudi authorities into releasing her.

Now that Biden is in power, human rights have risen up the list of US priorities, and progress is being made with a number of other detained activists, some who have been freed.

SaudiPrincess Basmah Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz speaks during a discussion on the role of women in the Middle East at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC on April 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Basmah speaking at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017. Getty
Since January 20, both the State Department and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Gregory Meeks, have taken active roles in fighting for Basmah's release.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is holding regular briefings with the State Department over Basmah's detention and has confronted Saudi officials directly about her wellbeing, according to a US official familiar with the discussions. The official asked for anonymity to speak candidly, but their identity is known to Insider.


In turn, "senior State Department officials have raised these cases [including Basmah's] with the Saudis," the official said.

A State Department spokesman told Insider: "President Biden and Secretary Blinken have both made clear that human rights will be a priority in our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia."

The department also included Basmah in its latest report on human rights, a clear sign that it was prepared to hold the kingdom accountable for the princess' condition.

Stonewalled by Saudi​

But US officials have found Saudi Arabia to be less than transparent when it comes to its detainees, like Basmah.


"We have found frustrating the extent to which the Saudis are able and willing to engage on the details," the US official said.

Insider has contacted the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, for comment.

The reason for Basmah's detention remains unclear.

US officials have traced it to her close friendship with Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Saudi crown prince who was ousted and replaced by his cousin, MBS, in June 2017. (Basmah and Mohammed bin Nayef are also cousins.)


"She had connections to MBN, and that was the root of where she ran afoul," the official said, using the initials for the former crown prince. MBN has been under house arrest since his 2017 removal from power, and a former intelligence officer close to him has accused MBS of attempted murder.

Basmah's family told Insider last year that they also believed her detention was linked to her claim to part of a multibillion-euro inheritance left by her father, King Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the second ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Basmah still gun saudi

A still from a security tape obtained by Spanish newspaper ABC showing men waiting for Basmah at her penthouse in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on February 28, 2019. ABC

'It's all been talk, talk, talk, talk'​

One reason Basmah's case remains unresolved is that the US has put the wellbeing of detained citizens and residents first, the official said, citing the cases of Salah al-Haider, Bader al-Ibrahim, and Dr. Walid Fitaihi, who are all American citizens.

The US also pushed Saudi Arabia to free the women's-right-to-drive campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, who is not a US citizen but had become a figurehead of MBS' crackdown on dissent.


All four were recently freed by Saudi Arabia following US pressure, though they are still subject to travel bans.

Basmah's family wants the Biden administration to use that same pressure to secure her release.

And they say time is of the essence.

Basmah has several serious illnesses, including colonic and heart issues as well as osteoporosis, and her family says that her health is deteriorating in prison.


They grew even more worried after her May 13 call from prison, made to her son Ahmed al-Sharif.

"She was more than done, she was too sick, too fed up with all of that, and it was a very serious, concerning call because she is a very strong person," Basmah's family member told Insider of the call. "It's a triggering and a serious thing, and a worry."

Despite the steps taken by the US government, the family member told Insider the Biden administration needs to do more.

"We're just waiting for actions to be taken. As from the beginning it's all been talk, talk, talk, talk," the family member said.



Henri Estramant, a legal advisor to Basmah, told Insider: "We are not seeking a regime change but rather the support of the Biden administration for the prevalence of the rule of law in Saudi Arabia."

"According to the latter the Princess should already be free, for no trial ever convened."

Saudi Princess Basmah Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz speaks during a discussion on the role of women in the Middle East at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC on April 12, 2017. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Basmah speaking at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, in April 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty
Though the US has the greatest chance of securing Basmah's release, the princess' case is also being championed by lawmakers in Europe.

Last October, 65 Members of the European Parliament wrote to Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, to ask them to boycott the 2021 G20 hosted by Saudi Arabia over human-rights concerns, citing Basmah's case as an example.



In a February 23 letter seen by Insider, the European Union External Action — the bloc's diplomatic service — told Estramant that the bloc was "aware of the case."

"The EU Delegation and Member States embassies in Riyadh have been following their situation and exchanging information about their whereabouts," the letter said.

For Basmah's family, frustrated with the lack of action in Washington, DC, one alternative which is proving popular with Saudi dissidents and exiles remains on the table: the courts.

"We're now trying to see what legal actions we can take," the family member told Insider.
 
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