‘Sarah and Omar have disappeared’: children of ex-Saudi official missing since March | World news

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The family of a former senior Saudi intelligence official have told of their anguish over the disappearance of two of his adult children in Riyadh, in what has been described to the Guardian as an act of vengeance by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to force the official’s return from exile.

The disappearance of Omar and Sarah Aljabri, son and daughter of Saad and Nadyah Aljabri, in March showed how Saudi’s de facto ruler had used the children of his perceived enemies against them, said Khalid Aljabri, the siblings’ older brother.

Their father, Saad Aljabri, 61, is a retired intelligence official who was the longtime right-hand man of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince who was deposed when Prince Mohammed became crown prince. Sarah and Omar disappeared 10 days after Mohammed bin Nayef was arrested this year.

In an interview with the Guardian, Khalid Aljabri, now living in Canada, disclosed new details about the plight of his siblings, who, unbeknown to the public until recently, were among the first victims of Prince Mohammed’s purges, he said.

Their ordeal began on the day Prince Mohammed became crown prince in 2017, said Khalid.

“A lot of people know about the September purge when he came for the intellectuals, and the Ritz Carlton, and Loujain [al-Hathloul] and the driving advocates, and Jamal Khashoggi and every other person in between. But the first purge was Omar and Sarah,” he said.

From the start, the true target of Prince Mohammed’s actions seemed to be Saad Aljabri, a man he is said to have believed represented a serious threat.

Omar Aljabri and his father, Saad Aljabri.

Omar Aljabri and his father, Saad Aljabri. Photograph: Supplied

Aljabri has long had close ties to western intelligence agencies and was lauded for transforming the kingdom’s intelligence capabilities after the 9/11 attacks. In a profile in the Washington Post, he was praised by former CIA directors and British officials and described as a “hero” who had saved countless lives in operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Aljabri was in Prince Mohammed’s crosshairs for various reasons, including his opposition to the prince’s decision to wage war in Yemen. Press accounts have also quoted Saudi rumours that Aljabri stole from the kingdom and has secret allegiances with the Muslim Brotherhood. The family staunchly deny the claims.

“We have evidence to prove that any allegations are politically motivated. We would welcome any legal challenge. And how does any such allegation justify kidnapping two children?” Khalid said.

The Saudi embassy in Washington declined to comment.

For Saudi watchers, the arrests are part of an intriguing power struggle that has pitted Saudi’s ruler against his perceived enemies. But for the Aljabri family, the disappearances are a personal disaster.

The family’s entanglement with Prince Mohammed began in 2017. Saad Aljabri had already fled the kingdom in the hope – according to Khalid – of steering clear of what the family has called the Game of Thrones-style jockeying between Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Nayef.

Sarah and Omar were the only members of the family – six brothers and two sisters in total – who had stayed behind as they waited for their US student visas to be approved.

According to the family’s account, Mohammed bin Salman reached out to Saad Aljabri days before he became crown prince and sought to convince him to return, saying he was needed and would be promoted.

Aljabri was suspicious of the offer. He stalled and said he would return in a matter of weeks. When Prince Mohammed assumed the role of crown prince days later, Khalid and his family urged Sarah and Omar to get out.

“What we did is told the kids to take their passports and go to the airport,” Khalid said.

Omar, who was 18 at the time, was let through security with an exit stamp. But authorities stopped Sarah and told her she was banned from travelling for “security reasons”.

“Omar said ‘I cannot leave her’,” Khalid said. Then came the news that Omar was banned, too. Prince Mohammed had been announced as the new crown prince just an hour earlier.

“The guy’s first order was banning a couple of kids from travel. It tells you what intention he had with my dad,” said Khalid. “We did not know if it was a temporary measure or if it was going to last forever.”

In a direct communication from Prince Mohammed in September 2017, Saad Aljabri was told that he would have to return to Saudi if he wanted his children to be allowed to travel.

Saad Aljabri and his wife headed for Canada while Omar and Sarah stayed in Riyadh and returned to their school.

Sarah is described by her brother as a studious and shy young woman who doted on her father when she was growing up, never missing a chance to have breakfast with him. Khalid said Omar is strong-willed and “wise beyond his age”, always keen to try to win an argument and always the centre of a party.

The distance took its toll. “Throughout that time, we were still pursuing peaceful mediation but our lives were totally different. At every lunch and dinner, every birthday, seats were always empty,” Khalid said.

Nadyah Aljabri would spend hours on the phone with her teenage daughter, often calling late at night as Sarah was waking up in Riyadh, and nudging her to get to school on time.

“The only comfort we had were calls and texts and video calls. My mom would spend at least two hours a day on the phone with Sarah,” Khalid said.

The disappearance of the siblings shows how Saudi’s de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pictured at 10 Downing Street in 2017, has used the children of his perceived enemies against them, says their family.

The disappearance of the siblings shows how Saudi’s de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pictured at 10 Downing Street in 2017, has used the children of his perceived enemies against them, says their family. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

This year, on 6 March, the family gathered for a video call to celebrate Sarah’s 20th birthday. Khalid recalled how Sarah had been pleased with her card, signed by the whole family, and a present – a new bracelet – which she dangled for the camera. It was the last time he saw her.

It was on that day that Mohammed bin Nayef and other prominent Saudis were arrested, and Omar and Sarah were summoned to meet state security officials.

At the meeting a few days later, the siblings were pressured to try to convince their father to return to Saudi.

“Sarah was scared,” Khalid said. “She told her cousins she was scared but did not want to tell my mom. She felt from that meeting that they were going to be arrested.”

When Nadyah tried to call on 16 March, Sarah’s phone was turned off.

Witnesses called to describe what they had seen: dozens of cars and officials had arrived at the house in Riyadh early that morning and taken the siblings.

Neither Sarah, 20, nor Omar, 21, have been heard from since that day in mid-March.

Sarah Aljabri on her birthday on 6 March 2020, 10 days before her disappearance.

Sarah Aljabri on her birthday on 6 March 2020, 10 days before her disappearance. Photograph: Supplied

Khalid Aljabri, who is a cardiologist, said attempts to get answers from state security and royal court officials in Saudi had been ignored.

“I’ve asked them where they’re being held and if they are OK and that I need to comfort my mother,” he said. “They read the messages and they don’t respond.”

He added: “Sarah and Omar have disappeared. We know nothing about them. Hopefully they are still together. They are best friends. Obviously it’s scary when you know what these guys are capable of.”

The Aljabris have sought help, including from the US government. Sarah and Omar are also European citizens because they had previously obtained Maltese citizenship.

Asked repeatedly by the Guardian whether the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had intervened, a spokesperson for the state department said: “We urge the government of Saudi Arabia, and all governments, to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, and rule of law. We have spoken out publicly about many of our concerns regarding these issues, and continue to do so in our private diplomatic engagement.”

So far, it has not worked.

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