U.S. News

07.12.13

The Princess & the Peon: Saudi Royal’s Slave Labor Charges

What pushed a Kenyan servant to flag down a commuter bus to flee the wife of King Abdullah’s grandson? Eliza Shapiro and Christine Pelisek on the shocking human-trafficking case.

It’s the story of the princess and her peon: a member of the Saudi royal family was arrested (PDF) in her Irvine, Calif., condo just after midnight on Tuesday for allegedly forcing a Kenyan woman to work as a domestic servant against her will.

Now 42-year-old Meshael Alayban is facing 12 years in prison on human-trafficking charges in one of the nation’s ritziest counties.

Alayban spent two nights in the Orange County jail before posting bail (PDF) fit for a princess on Thursday afternoon—$5 million.

She appeared in a Santa Ana courtroom on Thursday wearing a dark blue prison jumpsuit with her hair tied up in a bun.

Alayban surrendered her passport, agreed to wear a GPS tracking device, and is forbidden from leaving Orange County or having any contact with the alleged victim. She has been charged with one felony count of human trafficking.

Alayban is one of the six wives of Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a grandson of King Abdullah. She lives in Saudi Arabia but keeps a vacation home in Irvine. According to jail records, her occupation is “princess.”

Alayban was arrested after the 30-year-old Kenyan servant, who has not been named by police, fled the condo. The woman ran out to the main street at around 6:50 Tuesday morning, seeking help on a public bus in Irvine.

“I don’t know why that day was the day,” Lt. Julia Engen, public information officer for the Irvine Police Department, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t even know if the detectives know that. Maybe the opportunity presented itself.”

The Kenyan woman was carrying a State Department pamphlet warning about human trafficking, which she received at the Saudi Arabian embassy that issued her travel visa.

She flagged down the Irvine bus and spoke to an unidentified good samaritan, who brought her to her office and called the police. The Kenyan woman identified herself as a victim of human trafficking, using the language from the brochure she was carrying, Engen says. The woman can speak and write in English.

The Kenyan woman told detectives that she was forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, without a break. She had worked for the prince and princess since March 2012.

The police arrested Alayban late that evening and found four Filipino servants in the house, who were removed from the condo. Police said they are investigating if those four women were also being held against their will. None had their passports when they spoke to police, according to a source close to the investigations.

“Generally, people who are involved in a wage dispute don’t feel the need to flee,” said Baric.

All five employees are being cared for by an NGO, says Virginia Rice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

“We contacted a community-based organization that works closely with victims of crime,” Rice said. “They are assuring her safety and looking after her needs. Her safety is of utmost importance.”

Alayban cooperated with police during her arrest.

The Kenyan woman alleged Alayban paid her only $220 a month even though she was promised $1,600 a month to work eight-hour days, five days a week.

She says Alayban took her passport away as soon as she arrived at the Saudi Arabian airport. Recently, the Kenyan woman decided she wanted to leave Saudi Arabia and asked for her passport back, but Alayban allegedly refused to return it.

The Kenyan woman told detectives that she was not physically restrained or abused, and she had access to food and shelter while living with the prince and princess.

She also told detectives she had to seek work outside Kenya to pay for her sick young child’s medical bills. The child is staying with a family member in Kenya. Steve Baric, the Kenyan woman’s lawyer, confirmed she “has some people who are dependent on her.”

Police say Alayban found the Kenyan woman through an employment agency based in the African nation.

The Kenyan woman told police she was forced to move to Irvine with the Saudi family while they were on vacation, during which time she tended to at least eight people in four apartments in the complex, cooking, ironing, washing dishes, and cleaning.

Alayban was on one of her annual vacations to the condo on tony Jamboree Road when she was arrested. Engen says Alayban and her husband have been to Irvine at least three times on holiday.

Three young children, three extended family members, and the mother of either the prince or princess were staying at the complex with the prince, who is in his sixties, and princess. All eight Saudis were in the United States on legitimate tourist visas valid for six months.

The prince has not been charged, Engen says, because “the evidence we have is the interaction between the domestic workers has all been conducted by [Alayban]. She was the one making arrangements and contracting with agencies and took the passports and refused to return the passports, so right now she is the center of the investigation.”

Alayban is being prosecuted according to California’s Proposition 35, which increases penalties for human trafficking, which is defined as depriving or violating the personal liberty of another person.

This is the first time anyone has been prosecuted for forced human-labor trafficking—as opposed to prostitution—under Prop 35 in Orange County. The proposition was enacted in November 2012.

“The laws of our nation and California do not tolerate people who deprive or violate the liberty of another and obtain forced labor or services,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in a statement. “If any person is being enslaved, he or she should contact law enforcement. Any victim of human trafficking will receive the benefit and protection of the laws of the United States and California.”

In a statement, Paul Meyers, Alayban’s lawyer, said his client is not guilty and maintained that the case is a contractual dispute between Alayban and her disgruntled employee. Meyer says Alayban has been traveling to the U.S since she was a child and still visits the country often.

When Alayban was arrested, she told the police that she treats her servants very well, Engen says. According to police reports, Alayban told authorities the Kenyan woman was free to go at any time and characterized the incident as a dispute over the terms of employment.

“Generally, people who are involved in a wage dispute don’t feel the need to flee,” said Baric.

Alayban’s arraignment, originally scheduled for Tuesday, has been postponed until July 29.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the Saudi royal family has run into trouble with their servants. Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir was jailed in London in 2010 after he was convicted of sexually abusing and murdering his male servant. He flew back to Saudi Arabia in late March to serve out the rest of his prison sentence.

Back stateside, the Kenyan woman is “is as happy as can be to be free,” Baric says.

“She is dealing with some pretty significant people and to go through what she went through in a foreign country is daunting. She is very brave.”