TBILISI, Georgia—For the people of Saudi Arabia, its victims, and anyone who values human rights, Wednesday, April 17th, was a painful day.
First, President Trump vetoed a bill that would have ended U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
Then, an abrupt cancellation of a criminal court in Riyadh left some 30 Saudi human rights activists in prison. Among the detained are two U.S. citizens and the dissident Loujain al-Hathloul, who was arrested for campaigning against the Saudi male guardianship system and for the woman’s right to drive.
Accused of espionage, al-Hathloul and others were waterboarded, electrocuted and by some counts sexually abused in the basement of a secret prison near Jeddah by a member of the crown prince’s inner circle. The UN Human Rights Council and a host of Western countries have demanded their release to no avail.
And finally, two more women fled from Saudi Arabia to avoid abuse. This time they came to the post-Soviet country of Georgia where they waged yet another social media campaign begging for their lives.
All of this went down on Wednesday. And if that’s not enough, the Mueller report dropped the following morning making it nearly impossible for the sisters to stand out in the Interweb’s echo chamber. But stand out they did.
The two Saudi sisters, Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, took to Twitter as @GeorgiaSisters late Tuesday night to make a plea for their lives. They are just the latest of an estimated 1,000 women a year (though likely tons more) who escape the kingdom’s ongoing gender apartheid under the penalty of death to avoid domestic abuse and torture.
A full day and nearly 4,000 concerned followers later, the girls once again disappeared. Everyone rooting for them feared the worst. When wanted Saudi dissidents vanish, it usually means only one thing—à la Jamal Khashoggi.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast, “Saudi women make dangerous attempts to flee Saudi Arabia for numerous reasons including systematic discrimination and dearth of places to turn for help in cases of domestic abuse. Any country that receives escaping Saudi women should allow them to make asylum claims and assess those claims fairly. Forcible return of Saudi women can result in forced isolation or even violence.”
Before their disappearance Maha and Wafa had been hiding out in Tbilisi for three weeks after fleeing from their abusive family in Saudi Arabia. Like all Saudi women they had lived as second-class citizens or “permanent legal minors” in too often-harrowing conditions, threatened not only by a totalitarian regime but by their families as well.
The App from Hell
According to the kingdom’s male guardian laws, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to travel without permission from a male family member. Thanks to a secret online network of dissident women, the sisters found a workaround to get out of the country.
The girls stole their father’s phone and signed into the Saudi government-backed “woman-tracking” application called Absher. From there, they reset the password and then granted themselves permission to leave the country. The girls won’t say where they got their passports.
The controversial app is provided by both Google and Apple. Absher allows a Saudi man to do things like order passports or government documents online. The app also will send male users SMS alerts when their female presents a passport at any border, in case the female tries to flee without permission.
Basically, this allows a man to track his women’s movements. Remember those 1,000 women a year who escape? This is how Saudi men try to stop them.
According to TIME, “The app allows male users to log the information of their dependents and to grant or revoke permission for them to travel at the click of a button.”
Fortunately, Georgia also has a visa free regime with Saudi Arabia, so the sisters could fly directly to Tbilisi. Unfortunately, this also means that their father, brother and cousins can follow them to Georgia at any time and at least attempt to bring them back by force.
If they did, it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. According to the al-Subaie sisters, the French embassy in Georgia, and several other advocates for Saudi women, another young Saudi woman with the same last name, al-Subaie, fled Saudi Arabia for Tbilisi in 2018, seeking asylum and protection.
The other al-Subaie went to the French embassy where she received approval to request a visa. At the end of August last year, two days before her French visa was due to arrive, she vanished from the city. She didn’t answer calls or texts from the women in her dissident support network.
It appears that she was kidnapped from Georgia, most likely by her own family. There are also claims that she turned up in a Saudi prison. Whatever the case, for Maha and Wafa, hers is a cautionary tale.
On the Run In Georgia
It turns out the sisters’ mistrust of the Georgian government isn’t groundless. They wrote in reference to the missing al-Subaie, “We couldn’t be another forgotten story without fighting for our lives.”
“We are not safe here and we need to leave as soon as possible,” the girls told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. They aren’t incorrect.
Traveling to a third country that doesn’t have a visa free regime with the kingdom and ideally with a better track record of preventing dissident visitors from mysteriously turning up in jail back home probably would make sense.
For all its talk on democracy and human rights, the Georgian government for decades now has made an unfortunate habit out of cozying up to various despots in the region at large, the House of Saud being no exception.
Unfortunately for the Georgian government, this isn’t an isolated case. On May 29th, 2017, the Azerbaijani investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was pulled off of a Georgian street in broad daylight. He was beaten, bound, and tossed into a trunk by Georgian-speaking assailants wearing Georgian police uniforms.
What happened next is baffling. Afgan Mukhtarli magically appeared in an Azeri prison. On January 12th, 2017, Mukhtarli was sentenced to six years in prison.
How these mysterious uniformed men forced the journalist to cross the border into Azerbaijan against his will is criminal. How this happened while Mukhtarli’s passport sat in his home is conspiracy.
After nearly two years, the Georgian authorities still haven’t offered any credible explanation for his disappearance. The investigation fell flat long ago.
If the Georgian government could not be trusted then, how could it be now?
Yet the Georgians are not alone in their negligence or culpability in this regard. If the United States, which claims to prioritize human rights, liberty, and democracy above all else, is willing to make an exception for Saudi Arabia and look the other way—at least for the right price—then who isn’t?
Sisterhood of The Anonymous Chat Room
A friend of the al-Subaie sisters from before they left Saudi Arabia spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition on anonymity. “The point here is that this type of tribe is very dangerous. People don’t understand that yet. We don’t want this to happen to these girls. Georgia will not protect them from being kidnapped.”
As for how the girls were able to purchase plane tickets and escape? The sisters’ friend shuts down. She is careful not to expose any details about their personal lives or any of the specific methods by which the sisters’ or other girls in the past have escaped.
She explains that broadcasting vulnerabilities or potential exploits in the system might cause them to be patched up, compromising the next girl’s chances of escape. “We are all women, and we help each other,” the sisters’ friend says,
Has the al-Subaie girls’ father hired anyone to search for them? The sisters' friend says, “Anything is possible. I believe that they can do anything, and that they won’t stop until they find them. The fact that the girls showed their faces means that they will face death if their family reaches them.”
After the Saudi government canceled their passports, Maha and Wafa were essentially stateless. Their only hope was social media and their network of like-minded ladies. All of these women who managed to escape the country often provide support, logistics and advice to those girls who remain behind in the Kingdom, trapped and dreaming of escape.
Maha and Wafa explain that the abuse from their family really became a problem when Maha and her husband first became divorced. Her ex-husband then lied to her family claiming that Maha had betrayed him. As a result the girls’ family began beating them both out of shame.
For help, the girls turned to a private chatroom hosting a secret online network of Saudi women who had escaped from the kingdom.
Last January, 18-year-old Rahaf Muhammad Alqunun fled Saudi Arabia and attempted to fly to Australia. She was stopped along the way in Bangkok. If she’d been sent back, she explains, then she would have been killed.
After an arduous social media campaign, several frightening days barricaded in a Thai airport hotel, countless close calls, and all kinds of pressure from Saudi authorities, Alqunun was granted asylum in Canada where she now resides.
One of the most important rules in fleeing the kingdom is that once you escape and are ready to seek asylum, then you must upload a picture of your passport in order to prove your identity when you go public on Twitter.
The al-Subaie sisters did just that. And then they took it a step further. On Wednesday, they posted a video, showing their bare faces without head scarfs.
There was no turning back. If they were deported from Georgia, kidnapped like the disappeared al-Subaie girl, caught by their family or Saudi authorities, and taken back to Riyadh or their hometown, Ranyah, then they certainly would have been killed.
With their passports invalid and with no other choice, Maha and Wafa again sought protection from their digital community of Saudi women. Over the next few days, the community responded in droves. Twitter followed suite, at times resembling some kind of electronic Underground Railroad.
People from all over the world retweeted the Saudi sisters’ requests for aid, ferrying their calls for support and protection to mainstream media outlets, where they no longer could be ignored.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was bombarded with so many messages that it tweeted, “UNHCR does not comment on individual cases, including for reasons of confidentiality and data protection. We are closely monitoring the situation of the two sisters from Saudi Arabia who are currently in Georgia.”
By the end of the first day #SaveSaudiSisters was trending on Twitter. Rarely are social media accounts this uplifting.
Return of the Saudi Sisters
After an overwrought 24 hours of radio silence, despite desperate appeals from their growing Twitter following, the al-Subaie girls turned up back in Tbilisi. They had been blocked out of their Twitter account for unknown reasons, but they were safe at least for the moment.
Video footage showed Maha and Wafa arriving with government escort at the Migration Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia. In a statement on Thursday, the Georgian police announced that they had visited the girls at their temporary flat “to offer assistance and security guarantees to the women and inform them about procedures on getting asylum in Georgia.”
Strangely, despite the girls’ insistence that family members were in Georgia searching for them, the police stated that the “family members, to whom Alsubaie sisters are referring to (sic) as posing a risk for them, those family members are not in Georgia at the moment.”
How the Georgian police could know this for certain and essentially prove a negative remains unclear, unless they know much more than they are letting on. Regardless of these assurances, Twitter and the secret networks of the Saudi dissidents who helped the girls escape were rife with rumors that a group of Saudis was already in Georgia, searching for the al-Subaie sisters.
According to an interview on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, when the sisters arrived at the French embassy in Tbilisi to request asylum, the embassy told the girls that a group of men had already come by asking for the girls.
The embassy was however uncertain whether the men were with the Saudi government, the girls’ family, or a third party. In any case, it wasn’t a good sign.
The plight of the sisters brings even more attention to Saudi Arabia’s continuing gender apartheid. Under the male guardianship system, women need permission from a man to work, study, marry, and travel.
The Arab Winter
If the Donald J. Trump’s United States can be bought by Saudi Arabia, then the girls have good cause to be weary of the Georgian government. According to a statement from the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The amount of direct Saudian [sic] investments in Georgia has exceeded 100 million USD. Positive dynamics is observed in tourism as well. Up to 60 thousand Saudi Arabian citizens visited Georgia in 2017 alone.”
The question is: How many of them were forced back home and imprisoned? As a former Soviet republic, Georgia would do well to remember how it feels to be a prisoner in your own country.
If the uprisings that reverberated across the Middle East constituted 2011’s Arab Spring, then the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul suggests the coming of an Arab Winter for those living in the Saudi kingdom under the dark paradoxical regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Once considered a young media-savvy modernizer and technocrat, MBS showed his true colors when he began an “anti-corruption” campaign, which turned out to be just another way to consolidate power and marginalize his enemies.
Mohammed bin Salman is unique in his attempts to bill himself as a “progressive” reformer, while murdering people in broad daylight. Most autocrats just skip the liberal dance altogether.
The young crown prince is now de facto ruler of the kingdom and already more brutal, manipulative and vindictive than his father. MBS’s claims of being a “reformer” for building movie theaters are as laughable as Trump zealously repeating “No collusion, no obstruction,” in hope that it might be true.
Even the notoriously pro-Trump senator, Lindsey Graham, recently called MBS “toxic” and “a wrecking ball.” Yet, in a curious move even for Trump, the embattled president refuses to criticize the kingdom’s habit of abusing, torturing, and murdering its own citizens.
On Wednesday, as the al-Subaie sisters implored the West for help, the Trump administration vetoed an uncommonly bipartisan piece of legislation to end the war Yemen, which was passed by Congress in response to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
Trump claimed that it was “an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken [his] constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.” In so doing, the president ensured that the United States’ official response to the assassination of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist was a belligerent, deafening, and murderous silence.
To be fair, the U.S.’s silence on Saudi human rights was purchased long before Trump took the White House. The Obama administration certainly continued the same quid-pro-quo Saudi-American relationship that has pre-dated World War II.
Death Threats from Zealots
The al-Subaie sisters write from their new Twitter account, @GeorgiaSisters2, “We were laying low. We did not wanted to publish our personal information or come out to the media, but when we knew that there was a report against us and that the police were looking for us we had to do it.”
On Friday just when things seemed to be calming down for the girls, the death threats began rolling in. But these weren’t your “typical” death threats, unlike those you might find peppered all over the girls’ Twitter account from random zealots and Saudi trolls who when at a loss for online niceties jump straight to the murder of young women.
But these death threats came from the girls’ cousin and, even, their brother. The boys warned the sisters that all of their cousins had already arrived in Georgia, claiming that if they find you, they will kill you.
As the sisters’ Saudi friend puts it, “Their family will easily kill them in the name of honor. I know that because I came from a big tribe too. They will not stop until they honor their tribe. And by that, I mean kill them.”
She continues, “It is impossible to live in Georgia while being chased. We want to move them [the sisters] to an anonymous country, so they can start a normal happy life without the need to worry about their lives.”
The al-Subaie sisters have a message for the folks at @refugee (the UN refugee agency). In one of their last tweets on that ill-fated Wednesday, before they vanished for 24 hours, the girls wrote: “We need URGENT help. We are trapped if we disappeared it’s your responsibility. @Refugees.”
Things Left Behind
What’s most heartbreaking of all is that Maha had to leave behind her young son when she fled the Kingdom. She tweets, “I have a little son, and the circumstances in Saudi forced me to leave him. It was devastating for me to see him watched me being abused by my father.”
So when a Saudi troll with the username @aleef911, leaves yet another death threat below this heartfelt message from a mother to her son, it is an astoundingly telling and no doubt unintended contrast.
On one side is an angry little man who writes, “No one leave his baby alone should be scared.” Indeed what @aleef911 intended to say was, “Anyone who leaves her baby alone should be scared,” but then ignorance and hatred often go hand in hand.
On the other is a young woman who has overcome the very worst of her culture, her religion, and even her family, to courageously claim her life for the very first time.
She writes, “To my little son: You may read this message someday, I hope you forgive me for. I did not have another solution, I hope to hug you even for a moment, but I promise you will meet someday, please forgive me, I love you.”
If they can endure, the al-Subaie girls, like so many women in their dissident network, will emerge as reluctant but worthy leaders setting an example for an entire generation of young Saudi women. Whether anyone likes it or not, in 2019 when Twitter reigns, the whole world is watching.
Though they might not realize it yet, Maha and Wafa al-Subaie have already begun to fight back. Each day they grow stronger. The girls have already earned something akin to celebrity, though with all the death threats right now, it may not seem that way.
The same cannot be said for MBS’s Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud’s gender apartheid grows weaker and more desperate by the day, with every girl who escapes and each scandal that comes. By simply surviving, not to mention tweeting, they are a thorn in the side of a hate-filled regime, propped by the worst of antiquity and the saddest of fears.
On Friday morning, Maha and Wafa al-Subaie released photographs of their injuries and audio recordings of their abuse as proof. The shrieks of agony are difficult to listen to. It’s hard to believe that it is them in the recording.
With an ever-growing following of supporters behind them, the sisters seem different now from a mere two days ago. Even under the gravest of threats from those who were the closest to them, the al-Subaie sisters are somehow untouchable. Somehow they are free.
The Saudi sisters write, “A lot of torture a lot of violence, it’s really hard for us to hear it again [broken heart emoji] but this is for all the people who called us liars.”