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Saudi defector fears he is being hunted in London after bounty posted online

Verified Twitter account offers 10,000 Saudi rials for information about whereabouts of police colonel-turned-dissident
Earlier this month, Rabih Alenezi defected from Saudi Arabia's General Directorate of Public Security where he served as a colonel (MEE)

A Saudi police colonel who has publicly criticised the kingdom’s leadership since defecting earlier this month says he fears for his life after a bounty was offered on Twitter for his whereabouts.

Rabih Alenezi, 44, told Middle East Eye he contacted London’s Metropolitan Police on Sunday after a verified account purporting to belong to a social media influencer in Jeddah offered 10,000 Saudi rials ($2,662) to locate the former officer.

“Ten thousand Saudi riyals will be awarded to whoever finds the location of this person,” the post said in Arabic. “The search is underway.”

Followers responded to the tweet, adding 1,000 riyals ($266) to the bounty and suggesting neighbourhoods in London where he could be sheltering. One said that if they could find him, they would be praised for what they would do to him. The original post and responses to it were still up on Monday evening at the time of publication.

"I'm really scared,” Alenezi said on Monday. “I'm afraid, especially of Arabs, strangers, someone knocking on the door, even when I take a bath.”

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“You know why? The crown prince, he’s a crazy man. He didn’t take a lesson from what he did with [Jamal] Khashoggi’s murder. When we deal with someone crazy, expect anything.”

Alenezi said he had not expected to become a dissident and seek asylum when he decided to travel to the UK in February. He said he had “politely” avoided certain assignments for years.

He said he had thought of the visit as a chance to clear his mind in a country he knew well from studying English and management in programmes funded by the Saudi government. 

But after two weeks, he started to wonder why he had never spoken out against human rights violations in his country. “I didn’t say this in my whole life. Why don’t I say this here in the UK?” he asked himself.

'If we say to the crown prince, everything is yes, yes, yes, finally, we will be in jail'

- Rabih Alenezi 

So he posted a tweet - which he also described as polite - calling on Saudi police officers to refuse to spy on people, to fight “normal crimes” and “bad people”. “Just advice,” he said.

He said he was quickly called a traitor and shamed, blowback that made him realise he was becoming - or had already become - a dissident. He announced his defection and started speaking out critically online.

He expressed concern over forced disappearances, called Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 strategy disastrous and tweeted about the Howeitat tribe, which rights groups say have been forcibly displaced to make way for the $500bn Neom megaproject.

Alenezi said he was called in 2020 to deploy to Tabuk, a nearly seven-hour drive from the northern city of Arar where he lived, for a “security mission” to deal with protests against the demolition of homes for the project.

“I know they are doing something bad. That’s why I told them, ‘Guys, I’m sick’,” he said. “I actually wasn’t sick, but I am sick of the crown prince.”

During Ramadan last year, he said he was asked to go to the Qatif province, again far from Arar, to spy on Shia Muslims praying at mosques and monitor their activities. To avoid violating anyone’s rights, he said he told his superiors that he had planned a holiday with his family and couldn’t make it.

Tiger squad 'still exists'

Privately, he said he warned police colleagues that they should question orders from the crown prince and pointed to the Tiger Squad, the secret unit set up under the crown prince with the aim of covertly assassinating Saudi dissidents inside the kingdom and abroad, including Khashoggi.

“Those people killed Khashoggi and now they are in jail. So if we say to the crown prince, everything is yes, yes, yes, finally, we will be in jail,” he said he told colleagues. 

“The Tiger Squad still exists,” he added. “Some are in jail, but they employed other officers.”

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He acknowledged that the Saudi government had been very generous to him, funding his education both in the UK and in the US where he completed courses at a policing academy in Arizona and trained alongside the Phoenix police, according to certificates he shared with MEE.

“I have a car, a good house. My life was perfect. But it’s not about money and houses. It’s about my dignity,” he said.

Alenezi said he thinks he scares the Saudi leadership and has therefore drawn the attention of hundreds of pro-Saudi social media accounts because they believe other officers will follow suit.

“They are really afraid because I’m an example,” he said.

In the few short weeks he has been in the UK, he said he has seen a steady increase in the volume and intensity of the online attacks. His Twitter account was briefly shut down. After it was reinstated, it was hacked and remains down.

The same Twitter account that posted the bounty for Alenezi’s location reported calling a restaurant on Edgware Road last week to shut down the former officer while he was doing a live Tik Tok critical of Saudi Arabia. The account said it analysed the restaurant’s furniture, found it using Google maps, and then made the call.

Making an example

Abdullah Alaoudh, Saudi director at the Washington, DC-based Freedom Initiative, said the attacks on Alenezi are coordinated, systematic and have escalated very quickly.

Saudi Arabia regularly deploys troll armies to hound dissidents abroad, but Alaoudh said he had never seen a bounty offered before.

“They want to make an example out of him by trying to shut him down. I think they really want to assassinate him. I’m not exaggerating,” he said.

'They want to make an example out of him by trying to shut him down. I think they really want to assassinate him'

Abdullah Alaoudh, Freedom Initiative

Alaoudh said he had been in contact with Twitter about Alenezi’s situation and the company is aware of the situation, but there is “a lack of action on their part”. 

Twitter’s press team responded on Monday to MEE’s questions with a poo emoji, its new auto-response to all journalists

The Metropolitan Police could not confirm by the time of publication whether it was investigating Alenezi’s case. 

The Saudi embassy in the UK did not respond by the time of publication to MEE’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, Alenezi’s situation is being watched carefully by other Saudi dissidents in the UK. 

At a protest in front of the Saudi embassy on Friday, the video of Alenezi’s TikTok being shut down at the restaurant drew concern from several demonstrators who remarked how easy it had been to track him down and convince staff to stop him.

One activist who fled the kingdom last year after several friends were arrested for criticising the government told MEE on Monday that watching Alenezi’s experience scared her, even though she speaks out anonymously from abroad.

“I hope one day to disclose my identity and walk free,” she said. “As long as our identity is hidden, we can’t do so much for our people.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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