A friend of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Omar Abdulaziz is a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. Living in exile in Canada, the activist has been warned by the police of a possible threat against him.
Omar Abdulaziz knows that Saudi dissidents are not tolerated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). That is why 29-year-old Abdulaziz has been living in exile in Canada for years. Now, he says, he has received a call from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) notifying him that there has been a credible threat against him originating from Saudi Arabia.
"The Canadian authorities have received information that I could be a potential target," Abdulaziz told The Guardian newspaper and in a video statement he posted on Twitter.
"Mohammed bin Salman and his people want to harm me. They want to do something against me, but I don't know if it is an assassination or a kidnapping. I don't know, but it's something that's definitely not right," he said in the video that so far has almost 160,000 views on Twitter.
Saudi dissidents were silenced
Omar Abdulaziz was granted political asylum in Canada several years ago. This is a good thing, said Guido Steinberg, Saudi Arabia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.
"He is so prominent because all opposition, liberal and liberal-Islamic voices in Saudi Arabia have fallen silent. Either they are in prison or they have been forced by other means to cease their activities," said Steinberg. Abdulaziz is considered an opposition and liberal voice, Steinberg added, "without having a clear political profile."
This was the first time that the Canadian police had contacted him directly, said Abdulaziz. His lawyer, Alaa Mahajna, told the Guardian that the warning was quite credible and concrete. Abdulaziz's previous contacts with the Canadian authorities have mostly been about general risks.
Khashoggi: A 'dangerous' friend
Iyad El-Baghdadi, head of the Kawaakibi Foundation and a democracy activist, had expected that Abdulaziz would face such serious threats. "We know that MbS has been targeting him for some time," he said.
El-Baghdadi, a critic of the Saudi policy of Crown Prince MbS living in Norway, was also warned in 2019 of a possible threat coming from Saudi Arabia. Although he and Omar Abdulaziz have never met in person, the two activists are united by their criticism of the crown prince's actions. They were also both friends of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was brutally murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
In 2017/2018, Abdulaziz had regular contact with Khashoggi, then a Washington Post columnist. For Steinberg, this could have been Abdulaziz's undoing.
"When Jamal Khashoggi was in Washington D.C., he sought contact with Omar Abdulaziz. They had also planned joint activities," he said. "That seems to have been a moment when Khashoggi was in the line of fire but also when Saudi Arabia realized that Abdulaziz might be a danger to them."
A victim of espionage
In 2018, Abdulaziz learned through researchers at the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto that his phone contained spyware that was apparently hacked and tapped through a network connected to Saudi Arabia. Several of his family members were arrested after the suspected hack. In his recent video statement on Twitter, Abdulaziz stated that "they want to hurt me as a critic, ok. But what does my family have to do with it? Why are my parents and siblings not allowed to travel, not allowed to contact me anymore?"
Fighting internet trolls
Abdulaziz assumes that he and Khashoggi were targeted by Saudi leadership because of their planned activities. At least that is what Abdulaziz wrote in an editorial in the Washington Post in November 2019.
"It’s all been part of a coordinated campaign of harassment. Saudi Arabia, using spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group, hacked my phone to read my messages with Jamal, with whom I was working to identify and combat Saudi trolls on Twitter, which we called the 'electronic bees,'" he wrote. "We were working together to organize an army of volunteers to counter them."
Abdulaziz believed that the Saudi government was using every means possible to get him to drop the project. And it seems he was right.
Twitter: A thorn in Saudi Arabia's side
Abdulaziz has almost half a million Twitter followers. He wrote in his article that Saudi Arabia apparently ranks him among the top three Saudi Twitter influencers: he is now in exile, the second has been arrested and a third has disappeared. According to Abdulaziz, the rise of Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince in 2017 changed Twitter in Saudi Arabia.
Before then, the population had been relatively free to use Twitter to express their opinions. The Crown Prince recognized the importance of social networks in the formation of opinion early on, said Saudi Arabia expert Steinberg. The former legal and media advisor, Saud bin Abdullah al-Kahtani, was responsible for the construction of official troll farms. Al-Kahtani was also considered to be the person mainly responsible for the murder of Khashoggi but was not among the named perpetrators.
MbS has admitted, in response to public pressure, that Khashoggi died in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and put eleven men on trial. The accusations against al-Kahtani, one of the Crown Prince's closest confidants, were not upheld "because of insufficient evidence," the public prosecutor's office announced at the time. MbS still denies having ordered the murder, although there are several strong indications of this both from the United Nations and the US.
Abdulaziz has no fear
Saudi Arabia has not yet taken a position on the case of Omar Abdulaziz. A spokesman for the Canadian government said, according to the Guardian, that they are deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and that Canada would always be committed to the protection of human rights.
Abdulaziz is not afraid and seems to feel safe in Canada. "I'm fine," he said in his video statement.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had asked him what he thought about the threat. His answer: "I am happy. I feel that I am doing something. If you don't do something that bothers MbS, it means you're not doing your job well."