He was ahead of his time. He publicly called for peace with Israel even before the Abraham Accords; he attacked Iran and the Palestinians before it was popular to do so; and he was ultimately arrested for incitement by the Saudi establishment. Now he’s been released following his second arrest, and the situation in the Middle East is very different.
This the story of Saudi journalist Abdul Hameed Al-Ghabin, who back in 2018 and 2019 supported full normalization with the State of Israel. He appeared in most Arabic-language media without concern or fear. The authorities didn’t know what to do with him. On the one hand he wasn’t breaking any laws, but on the other hand he was embarrassing the kingdom’s top officials who were trying to portray themselves as defenders of the Palestinian cause.
He was also the first Saudi to write an opinion column in an Israeli newspaper, Israel HaYom. In his article ”A New Saudi Perspective for Peace,” he attacked Jordan. From an Arab point of view, it is unacceptable for a Saudi citizen to attack an Arab League member state. There is no democracy in Arab countries and no tolerance for opposing opinions.
Abdul Hameed Al-Ghabin was a victim of behind-the-scenes conflicts within Saudi Arabia. The moderates didn’t want to hurt him, but the extremists managed to have him arrested. In some Arab countries, a judge’s order is not necessary to arrest a person, a phone call from a politician or from some high-ranking security official is sufficient. That’s how it works and that is what happened. In the opinion of many in Saudi Arabia, this journalist had crossed the line of acceptable behavior by talking about peace with Israel and criticizing Arab countries, including the Palestinians.
To reiterate, there is no freedom of expression in countries like Saudi Arabia and those who dare to make noise without the approval of the authorities often pay the price with prison time, or even with their life. It is important to clarify that Al-Ghabin did not attack the Saudi establishment. If he had attacked the Saudi establishment, that same day he would have been executed or sentenced to decades in prison.
The controversial Saudi journalist was arrested and spent a year in prison, in addition to the five months he was held at a police station. During that time they revoked his citizenship and tried to accuse him of spying for Israel. The charges against him included: attempting to obtain Saudi citizenship by deception, smuggling money, supporting the British, and harming Palestinians. He was convicted of none.
A few days ago, Al-Ghabin was released under severe restrictions, including: prohibition again leaving the country, prohibition against being interviewed by any media, and prohibition against opening social media accounts.
After a year-and-a-half, it became clear to the authorities that his imprisonment was without merit, that a group of extremists had forced his arrest, and the charges against him were dropped. Today, there is a state committee examining the entire affair, and if it turns out that Al-Ghabin has been wronged, which is likely, he will be compensated.
The imprisonment of Abdul Hameed Al-Ghabin constituted a violation of press freedom and of freedom of speech, and was a serious violation of human rights. People I spoke to in Saudi Arabia told me that he was released so as not to damage delicate relations with the new American government of President Joe Biden. Either way, Al-Ghabin has suffered enough, and it is time for Western countries to give him and his family political asylum because he will not be able to lead a normal life in Saudi Arabia in light of his past.
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