Saudi-American doctor sentenced to jail

From the Washington Post:

A court in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sentenced Walid Fitaihi, a doctor with dual American and Saudi citizenship, to six years in prison on charges that included illegally obtaining U.S. citizenship, a person close to his family said.

Fitaihi was also convicted over criticising other Arab states in social media posts. The New York Times reports that American officials have privately dismissed these charges as politically motivated. The sentence includes an additional travel ban for six years on him, his wife and six children.

“We are disappointed to hear of the sentencing of Dr. Walid Fitaihi and are seeking a full understanding of the ruling against him,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement sent to reporters.

The Harvard-trained doctor is the founder of the Jeddah-based International Medical Center, one of the largest private hospitals in the kingdom. The hospital website still features a photo of him standing with the late King Abdullah at its inauguration. But he is probably more known as a religious motivational speaker who featured in his own television show called “Wa Mahyay” (the name is derived from a Quranic verse that roughly translates to “My Living”). The show debuted seven years ago and was regularly shown on Saudi-owned MBC, the largest television network in the Middle East.

His account on Twitter boasts 1.7m followers. “They kept asking me, ‘Why do you have so many followers?’ ” he told a Post columnist in a surprising interview last May. “For them, the fact that I was an American only made it worse.”

Although Fitaihi was arrested in November 2017 along with hundreds of princes, senior officials and executives over corruption allegations in what became known as the Ritz-Carlton purge, his situation bears more similarities to an earlier wave of arrests in September that targeting clerics, academics, intellectuals and other activists. He was released after nearly two years but remained under a travel ban while waiting for his trial. His family and friends say he was severely tortured in detention.

His case is notable because it is one of the few issues where the Trump administration has spoken publicly about raising with Saudi officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart in DC last October, said he discussed “our concerns about American citizens, and we asked for lifting the travel ban on Dr. Fitaihi.” There are at least two other Saudi-American dual citizens detained in the kingdom: Salah al-Haidar, son of prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, and Bader al-Ibrahim, a Shia physician and writer. Both were arrested in April 2019.

“It was not enough that they disappeared, imprisoned and tortured my dad for no reason at all,” said Fitaihi’s son Ahmad, who is based in the US. “The Saudi leadership wanted to further inflict pain on us by sentencing our dad. We are outraged by this unjust sentencing and call on President Trump and congressional leaders to urgently intervene.”

The incoming Biden administration is likely to continue pressing the issue of Fitaihi, who has 30 days to appeal his sentence. The same applies to other detained human rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan told AFP earlier this week that accusations against her includes “dealing with states unfriendly to the kingdom and with providing classified information.” Her family says no evidence to support these allegations had been put forward.

The minister has dismissed the notion that international pressure could lead to a change in their approach towards these issues, but as BBC’s veteran foreign correspondent Frank Gardner notes, this has been nothing short of “an international PR catastrophe for the Saudi leadership.”

This is not the only headache they are dealing with in DC at the moment. There are also two lawsuits filed against the crown prince in the US District Court for the District of Columbia over allegations of torture, detention and extrajudicial killing. One of these cases, filed by former intelligence official Saad al-Jabri, had a hearing earlier this week.

Lawyers for the crown prince have asked the court to dismiss the case, claiming it has no jurisdiction over the prince, according to court documents viewed by Reuters:

In filings on Monday, MbS’s lawyer Michael Kellogg dismissed the claims, describing them as “steeped in drama” likening the crown prince to one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. “Regardless of its merits as literature, the Complaint fails as a legal pleading,” he wrote in an 87-page document.

Kellogg wrote that Jabri “can say whatever he wants to the newspapers but this case does not belong in federal court”.

Jabri, who now lives in Canada, was an aide to former interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef who has been under house arrest since March. His lawyers said last week that they are concerned for his personal safety after what they described as a sustained and coordinated attack from inside Saudi Arabia on social media.

They have asked YouTube to take down a video alleging that the former crown prince is plotting against MBS, which they said is completely unfounded. “His loyalty to the crown prince had never wavered and he continues to support the established monarchy,” they added.

Relatedly, an anchorwoman for Al Jazeera channel filed a lawsuit in American federal court this week against the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, accusing them of working with conspirators to hack her phone and leak her personal information online.

Ghada Oueiss, who joined the Qatar-based channel in 2006, claims that social media attacks against her escalated after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in late 2018. Her phone was allegedly hacked using a vulnerability in WhatsApp that was exploited by Israel-based NSO Group’s hacking tools to inject spyware into the device, according to the lawsuit.

“The lawsuit did not point to any concrete proof that the hack of her phone was directed by Saudi Arabia,” the Financial Times reported. “Instead, it relied on circumstantial evidence that it said fitted a pattern of harassment of critical foreign journalists and abuse of the NSO Group’s spyware by the kingdom that has been documented and alleged by human rights groups.”

Like several other Al Jazeera anchors, Oueiss has been engaged in almost daily verbal battles on Twitter since the Saudi-Qatar dispute broke out, and has written a column earlier this year in the Post about her experience. But this was not the first time that she has complained about online abuse. In 2013, a fake Facebook account impersonating her claimed putting a million dollar bounty on the head of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine approved

The Saudi Food and Drug Authority on Thursday approved the registration of the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech. The drug is the first coronavirus vaccine to be licensed for use in the kingdom, and the country’s hospitals can now start using it. Shipments are expected to arrive within days and the first jabs will be given before the end of year, a health ministry official told state television.

As I noted in Wednesday’s dispatch, the government said it has signed several deals for the vaccine but without providing details on the manufacturers or countries of origin. It appears now that the Pfizer vaccine, which the UK has already started deploying earlier this week, will be the first to be used in Saudi Arabia too. Other vaccines remain under review, the health ministry official said.

The government has previously announced that the vaccine will be given free of charge to all citizens and residents. Authorities are expected to rely on electronic platforms to facilitate access to the vaccine by the public. The health ministry is already using mobile apps to allow people to book coronavirus tests. I used the service in October and it was a pretty smooth experience: you can book an appointment for free within 24 hours, get your sample taken at a drive-thru, then receive the result in the app within 48 hours.

Correction: This post originally stated King Abdullah attended the IMC inauguration in October 2016. The late king, who died in January 2015, attended an earlier event at the hospital where the picture was taken. The post has been updated to reflect that.

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