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Senators Press Trump to Help Free Children of Saudi Ex-Official
By Nick Wadhams and Vivian Nereim
July 9, 2020, 6:13 AM PDT
Saad Aljabri was key link between Saudi and U.S. intelligence
Children’s case highlights recent strains in U.S.-Saudi ties
Marco Rubio Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
Four United States senators on both sides of the aisle are urging President Donald Trump to help secure the freedom of an exiled Saudi official’s children, calling it a “moral obligation” to stand by a man who aided American intelligence for years.
Siblings Omar and Sarah Aljabri, aged 22 and 20, were detained in Saudi Arabia in March, according to their family. Their brother Khalid said in a phone interview that the children are “pawns” in a campaign by Saudi authorities to pressure their father to return to the kingdom -- where he fears for his safety, partly because of his close ties to a former rival of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In a letter addressed to the president on Tuesday, the senators expressed “urgent concern” about the children’s case, calling their father, Saad Aljabri, “a highly valued partner” of American intelligence agencies whose counter-terrorism work helped save thousands of American lives. The letter was signed by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg.
“We believe the U.S. has a moral obligation to do what it can to assist in securing his children’s freedom,” the letter read. “We urge you to raise this issue with senior Saudi officials and press for the immediate release of Dr. Aljabri’s children.”
The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication did not respond to a request for comment.
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The letter calls on Trump to confront one of his most stalwart allies, highlighting cracks in Saudi Arabia’s “special relationship” with the U.S. Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia who’s often referred to as MBS, has cultivated close ties with the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner -- receiving a declaration of support from Trump even after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
”If the White House cares about this case and the president or his son-in-law were to pick up the phone they could probably go a long way toward resolving it,” Senator Leahy told Bloomberg.
Over the past few years, the 34-year-old prince’s unpredictable foreign policy and crackdown on domestic dissent have alienated other parts of the U.S. government and drawn condemnation from members of Congress.
Aljabri’s family say that the children are stuck in the middle of a broader political struggle. Saudi authorities have accused their father of corruption, but his connection to a rival of the crown prince -- and access to highly sensitive information -- have raised questions about the motivation behind their pursuit.
Succession Drama
Saad Aljabri, 61, was the right-hand man of Saudi Arabia’s former crown prince and interior minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, called MBN by Saudi-watchers -- an elder cousin of the current crown prince and previously in line to be the future king.
In that role, Aljabri served as a key link between Saudi and Western intelligence services, particularly during the era following the September 11th attacks. MBN, his boss, was a favorite of American officials, and became heir to the throne in 2015. But Crown Prince Mohammed, a favorite son of the current king, was rising swiftly too.
Saad Aljabri tried to resign, worried he could get caught in a power struggle between cousins, according to his son Khalid, who serves as a spokesman for the family. Khalid Aljabri said the resignation was declined -- which is common in Saudi Arabia. But his father was fired months later, which some saw as an early sign of tension between the royals.
Saad Aljabri was outside the kingdom when MBN was sidestepped in 2017 and his cousin became crown prince. With his patron stripped of all his positions and under guard, Aljabri stayed abroad and settled in Canada with most of his family. But Saudi authorities soon began to push him to return to the kingdom, his son Khalid said.
Travel Ban
A key pressure point was that two of the family’s eight children were trapped back in Saudi Arabia, their brother said. They had been waiting for U.S. visas to study abroad, but were suddenly banned from travel, stranding them alone at age 17 and 18 with only the family home’s caretaker.
For years, their family tried unsuccessfully to reach Saudi leadership through through back channels.
Then, this March, MBN was arrested, and their situation took a turn for the worse. Omar and Sarah Aljabri were also detained -- followed by the detentions of the home caretaker, a family friend who had helped the children and their uncle, their brother said. The family hasn’t heard from them since, and say they had no choice but to go public.
“If you have a problem with their father, go deal with their father,” Khalid Aljabri said. “We invite any transparent due process that doesn’t include extortion through child hostage-taking.”
Now they’ve turned to lobbying U.S. officials to advocate for the children’s release.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the kids on a plane back to their family,” Khalid Aljabri said. “There is nothing that can explain what they’ve endured over the past three years.”
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