Who’s afraid of Princess Basmah?
Things have been better for Mohammed bin Salman. Since the changing of the presidential guard in Washington, hardly a week goes by without negative headlines about MbS, Saudi Arabia’s 35-year-old Crown Prince who holds the reins of government business in Riyadh. Shortly after taking office, one of the first things Joe Biden did was to publish an intelligence agency report blaming MbS for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Just a few days later, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders filed a criminal complaint with the German public prosecutor accusing MbS of crimes against humanity.
And now, he’s also facing a challenge in the case of a detained princess and her daughter. Emboldened by the voting out of Trump, the princess’s supporters are now appealing for help. The case has primarily made headlines in Britain. "The two were abducted in March 2019 in Jeddah," says Henri Estramant, a legal adviser to both women who is now pushing for intervention in both London and Washington. "Since then, they have been arbitrarily held in a high security prison for terrorists," says Estramant, adding that the princess "is a political prisoner".
Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is one of the more than 100 children of King Saud, ruler of the country until 1964. Before her detention the princess, who is now 58, had returned to Saudi Arabia from London, although she continued to spend a lot of time abroad.
"Princess Basmah expressed herself very openly," Estramant describes her political standpoint, "she is not against the system of government in Saudi Arabia, but she criticised certain things that in her view transgress the boundaries of human dignity."
For example, while she lived in London Basmah gave an interview to the BBC. In it, the princess calls for Saudi Arabia to be turned into a constitutional monarchy and for human rights such as gender equality to be anchored in the constitution. She also takes a critical view of the Saudi war in Yemen, says Estramant.
Basman’s detention came to public attention last year. Since then, British media have documented what happened in February 2019 – just a few months after the dismemberment of Khashoggi in Istanbul. A leaked surveillance video even shows armed men waiting in the lobby of the princess’s villa to detain her. Basmah had planned to leave Saudi Arabia for a medical appointment in Switzerland, instead she and her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif ended up at Ha‘ir prison in Riyadh.
Internal power struggle
Basmah is not the only member of the sprawling House of Saud to find themselves in prison. Although he doesn’t have an exact number, says Adam Coogle of Amnesty International, he would estimate it to be at least a dozen. The most prominent prince behind bars is Mohammed bin Nayef, himself due to ascend the throne before MbS urged his father to place him first in line in 2017.
In Washington, it’s an open secret that many would prefer to see Bin Nayef in power in Riyadh. But it looks highly unlikely that this will ever happen: MbS had Bin Nayef arrested last year on charges of treason. Other princes detained on the orders of MbS at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh in 2017 were released, although many have fallen silent since.
This power struggle is evidently also a factor in the case of Basmah. "A number of things come together here," says a person close to the princess in conversation with Qantara.de, requesting anonymity for security reasons. Basmah maintained "close contact and a good relationship with Mohammed bin Nayef," the source says. The princess was "clearly viewed as a threat" by MbS and his people, the source continues. There had also been a row over her father’s fortune; and essentially, as a princess from another branch of the family with a critical voice and international contacts, she had been a thorn in the system’s side.
The dissident Madawi Al-Rasheed, guest professor at the London School of Economics, also believes the latter reason was the main motivation for Basmah’s arrest. "It is a battle between princes and princesses," she says. "Those princesses displaying absolute loyalty to MbS are promoted and appointed ambassadors, others whose views don’t toe the official line are targeted," says Al-Rasheed. For the professor, this is a sign that the regime is imploding; the inner circle has begun eliminating itself.There has been no word on Basmah since last year. The Saudi embassy in Berlin did not respond to an enquiry from Qantara.de. In the past, the nation’s UN representative denied that Basmah and Suhoud had been kidnapped and that they were being held without charge. He claimed the two women were in prison due to criminal activities. Basmah had tried to leave the country illegally, said the U.N. diplomat, while Suhoud had attacked a state official – accusations that Estramant does not accept: Saudi law stipulates that no one can be held without charge for longer than 180 days, he says. For this reason alone, both women should have been released long ago.
The source close to the princess now expects the issue of human rights to be pushed back up the agenda under Biden. Even before Trump left office, Basmah’s supporters made contact with Washington. But their efforts came to nothing. "I hope that they’re both free by Ramadan," says the source. This year, the fasting month begins in mid-April.
Should the pair remain behind bars, this could prove to be uncomfortable for MbS. The case chimes well with the counter-narrative presented by dissidents and foreign NGOs to challenge the Saudi leadership’s version of events, says Sebastian Sons from the thinktank Carpo in Bonn. And that narrative claims that MbS and the House of Saud are at best modernisers, but not the reformers they present themselves to be. "These dissident groups have become very well organised and very visible over the last two years, in Britain and the U.S. but also in other countries," Sons tells Qantara.de.
The fate of Loujain al-Hathloul exemplifies just how much an individual case can flare up. After more than 1,000 days in detention, the activist was released following a year-long campaign by her supporters. She took legal action against her suspended sentence and five-year travel ban, but her punishments were upheld in court last Wednesday. 2The Basmah case is going in the same direction," says Sons, although her membership of the royal family means the case will be handled differently.
In Germany too, Saudi activists are trying to make themselves heard. On the invitation of the London-based Saudi human rights group ALQST, Al-Hathloul’s sister Lina met with parliamentarians from almost all the party groups in early March. Last month, dozens of Bundestag deputies and parliamentarians from Britain and Ireland called on the Saudi leadership to release all detained activists. That alone is unlikely to be causing anyone in Riyadh to have sleepless nights, but: "We’re now seeing the emergence of a determined front that can no longer be controlled by silencing everyone," says Sons. "The mass is just too large for that."
Sons also views the RSF criminal complaint as an effective way of directing attention to the issue. The move sparked international interest because Germany is also currently hosting a trial against members of the Syrian regime, a world first that is breaking new ground in international criminal law. But is unlikely that federal prosecutors will actually open a case against MbS. "It is presumably more about sending a political signal to the German government, but also to other allies of Saudi Arabia," says Sons.
Nun ist es raus, ein Jahr Teamarbeit vorbei! @ReporterOG hat Strafanzeige wegen Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit gegen den Kronprinzen von #SaudiArabien Mohammed Bin Salman eingereicht. Ich habe die Anzeige gestern an den Generalbundeswalt überreicht. https://t.co/iCE4c94f87 pic.twitter.com/053z7wmObg
— Christian Mihr (@cmihr) March 2, 2021
To secure the release of princess Basmah, Henri Estramant is applying pressure first and foremost on London and Washington. In a letter to the British foreign minister, he requested intervention.
Last week, he also informed the U.S. administration that Basmah had been taken to a clinic – evidently for digestion problems. The statement, seen by Qantara.de, reads: "The princess is a peaceful activist, mother and modest businesswoman… we conclude that she was detained owing to her close links with the former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef."
No sanctions against MbS
It is not out of the question that Bamah’s supporters will be heard in the U.S.. Biden has made it clear that under him, Washington has retracted its free pass to the authoritarian young upstart in Riyadh. But since taking office, he has so far not followed through on the decisive tone of his election campaign: he may have ordered the publication of the aforementioned report, held back under Trump, that said MbS was “highly likely” to have been personally involved in the Khashoggi murder. But Biden has also refrained from imposing direct sanctions on MbS.
Instead, in what’s known as the "Khashoggi Ban", Washington slapped visa restrictions on 76 other Saudi Arabians. "Biden went half a mile and then stopped dead," says Al-Rasheed. "He’s making enough noise to scare MbS, but he has to consider his own national interests." Sons reminds us that MbS is also head of the gigantic Saudi Public Investment Fund, set to become the world’s largest public fund by 2030. This fund invests heavily in the U.S., which is why Sons rules out personal sanctions against MbS.
Nevertheless, MbS now finds himself under pressure to at least clear up the scandals making international headlines. Loujain al-Hathloul – unlike many other detained Saudi activists – has already benefited. Princess Basmah could be the next. For MbS, her release would represent a chance to at least repair some of the damage done to his reputation by the Khashoggi carnage.
© Qantara.de 2021
Translated from the German by Nina Coon