A prominent Saudi family that came to Canada seeking safe haven says it fears that two of its members abroad have been seized as pawns in a “game of thrones” playing out in Saudi Arabia.
Saad Aljabri, 61, a former senior Saudi security official who helped build bridges with visiting Canadian cabinet ministers and intelligence officials, has been quietly living in Canada with some of his family members since 2017.
One of his sons, Khalid Aljabri, a doctor trained in Canada, says that two of his siblings were seized in Saudi Arabia this spring and have not been heard from since. The family fears they are being held as “bargaining chips” by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who they say has been trying to force their father’s return.
The family had been living in Canada without drawing any attention to themselves, but now they want the world to know about the March arrest in Riyadh of Omar, 21, and Sarah, 20.
“At the core of this whole story is a couple of innocent kids who should be with us here in Toronto,” Dr. Aljabri said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “We don’t even know if they are dead or alive. … Are they well? Have they been tortured?”
The Crown Prince – also known as MBS – has been consolidating his power by sidelining and arresting rival royal factions and their allies to pave a clear path to becoming king. For years the Aljabri family has lived in fear of him. “We did not want to get caught in a political game of thrones,” said Dr. Aljabri, who acts as a family spokesman.
The family’s saga began nearly 20 years ago after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, which were perpetrated by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who were mostly Saudi nationals. Afterwards, the kingdom aligned itself as an ally in the global fight against al-Qaeda – and Saad Aljabri was crucial to that effort.
Saad Aljabri rose in the Saudi security bureaucracy as a key adviser to Mohammed bin Nayef, a high-ranking royal. The two modernized the Ministry of the Interior, while using it to cultivate relationships with U.S. and Canadian intelligence agencies.
“Saad was instrumental in developing the co-operation to protect Canadian lives and interests,” said Alan Treddenick, a retired Canadian Security Intelligence Service officer. Retired U.S. counterterrorism officials have credited Saad Aljabri with helping to stop al-Qaeda terrorist plots directed at American civilians.
The security relationship also expanded to trade. While serving as public safety minister between 2010 and 2013, Conservative Vic Toews visited the Gulf region and met Saad Aljabri several times.
“I particularly enjoyed the occasion to exchange views with you on our growing bilateral security relations, and especially on the promising engagement of the Canadian Commercial Corporation [CCC] in the Ministry of Interior’s modernization program,” Mr. Toews wrote in one letter.
In 2015 Saad Aljabri became a Saudi cabinet minister under his patron, Mohammed bin Nayef, who became Crown Prince. But two years later, their fortunes plummeted when the the king appointed his son to that role. As heir to the throne, MBS placed his predecessor under house arrest.
In the summer of 2017 most members of the Aljabri family were travelling abroad. They decided it would be prudent to make their way to Canada, where Khalid Aljabri, had gone to study medicine at McGill University in 2010.
“Canada is home, it’s a safe haven, but none of us sought asylum,” Dr. Aljabri said. He said his family – including three other siblings ages 33, 18, and 9 – immigrated through standard processes. “Some of my family members including my dad are only a few months away from becoming Canadian citizens.”
Saudi Arabia has long signalled it wants its former security chief back home. At first the demands came in the form of polite overtures from visiting acquaintances or job offer messages from MBS himself.
But Dr. Aljabri says the kingdom later filed extradition requests for his father that went nowhere. The family dreads the prospect of Saudi agents coming to Canada target them. “There have been genuine concerns about attempts to induce harm,” Dr. Aljabri said, without going into details.
The Canadian government has also expressed worry about the case. “Canada is concerned by the detention of Saad Aljabri’s two children in Saudi Arabia,” Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Syrine Khoury said.
Since MBS took power as a Crown Prince in 2017, the kingdom’s relations with Canada have cooled.
In 2018, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland expressed concerns on Twitter about crackdowns on Saudi civil society. The kingdom responded with diplomatic and trade sanctions, and Dr. Aljabri expects the reaction may have been partly about his father. “I think for MBS there was a personal issue with him and Canada and it’s highly related to that dad was here.”
The siblings who stayed in Saudi Arabia were easier to target. In the summer of 2017, Omar and Sarah were still in Saudi Arabia arranging visas to study in the United States. But when they tried to board an outbound flight, they found out they were put on a travel ban.
For the past three years they have not been allowed to leave Saudi Arabia, though Dr. Aljabri says they phoned family in Canada nightly.
The calls stopped on March 16. Their family says that was when the two were taken during a dawn raid on the family home in Riyadh. No one has heard from them since.
The family’s hope is that they will one day see the siblings – in Canada. “If Omar and Sarah were to land in Toronto today they would become permanent residents,” Dr. Aljabri said. “They are eligible. The only thing is they need to be physically here. They’ve applied.”
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