Skip to main content

Salma al-Shehab: Leeds University urged to act in case of Saudi Arabian student jailed for tweets

Open letter calls on Leeds University to demand release of PhD student serving 27 years in Saudi prison for retweeting posts in support of women's rights
Salma al-Shehab is serving a 27-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia (Social media)

Hundreds of staff members and students at the University of Leeds have urged university leaders to call for the immediate release of Saudi Arabian PhD student Salma al-Shehab, who is currently serving a 27-year prison sentence in the kingdom for retweeting posts in support of women’s rights.

In an open letter co-ordinated by the Leeds branch of the University and College Union (UCU), 340 academics, students and employees urged Vice Chancellor Hai-Sui Yu and Pro-Chancellor Alastair Da Costa to publicly call on Saudi Arabia to release al-Shehab.

Leeds University has not released a statement about its PhD student since August 2022, when it expressed its “deep concern” about her case. Campaigners believe that unambiguously calling for al-Shehab’s release would be an important step to build pressure for her release. 

"This latest action displays the immense level of concern about Salma’s fate among the University of Leeds community, who are desperate for their own university to do all it can to support her, and for the UK government to use its considerable leverage to push for her release,” Joshua Cooper, deputy director at Alqst, a UK-based rights group, told Middle East Eye.

A 35-year-old dental hygienist and mother of two, al-Shehab is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. The Saudi citizen, who is part of the kingdom’s Shia minority, was living in the city in West Yorkshire, in the north of England, before her detention in Saudi Arabia.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


On 15 January 2021, while on holiday in Saudi Arabia, she was arrested and held in solitary confinement, after retweeting posts in support of allowing women to drive and calling for the release of activists including Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading women’s rights figure who served 1,001 days in detention and who lives under a travel ban.

'We note that Saudi Arabia’s authorities are actively seeking international partnerships, including with UK universities'

- Open letter to Leeds University leaders

For over nine months, al-Shehab was questioned by authorities before being brought to court, where she was originally sentenced to six years in prison. In August 2022, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court upped this sentence to 34 years, before reducing it to 27 years in prison with a 27-year travel ban.

At the time, al-Shehab's initial sentence was the longest given in Saudi Arabia to a woman human rights defender, and it drew attention because she was not well-known and had few followers. 

But the PhD student’s sentence was the first in a series of cases, including those of Nourah al-Qahtani and Saad Almadi, in which Saudi authorities handed down lengthy prison sentences to people with similarly obscure social media profiles.

A week after al-Shehab’s shock sentence, al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison for “breaking the social fabric of the kingdom” and “violating the public order” over tweets from two anonymous accounts.

During her time in detention, which has been ruled by UN experts to be arbitrary, al-Shehab’s physical and mental health has deteriorated.

In March 2023, she and seven other detained Saudi women undertook a hunger strike, which al-Shehab ended after several weeks so she could take medication. 

Alqst believes the Leeds student’s case is emblematic of a crackdown on free speech taking place in Saudi Arabia.

“Over the past two years the Saudi courts, notorious for their abuses and their disregard for legal safeguards, have handed down a series of decades-long prison sentences to peaceful activists and even private individuals, in an increasingly brazen and irrational manner,” the group said in a statement.

Strategic partnerships

The number of Saudi Arabians studying in the UK has shot up in recent years.

A 2022 British Council report examining the “opportunities for higher education and technical training collaboration between institutions in Saudi Arabia and the UK” noted that Britain was the second-most popular foreign destination for Saudi students. 

“Partnerships between Saudi and UK educational institutions are longstanding and await expansion,” the British Council said. 

PGA Tour vs LIV: How Saudi Arabian money ignited a golf war
Read More »

On 14 March, the University of Leeds released a statement celebrating Manar Samman, a Leeds graduate named the national winner at the British Council Study UK Alumni Awards in the science and sustainability category in Saudi Arabia.

In December, British government officials and representatives from British universities met Saudi Education Minister Yousef al-Benyan in Riyadh.

According to the Saudi press agency, the roundtable meetings included discussions aimed at “strengthening the ongoing strategic partnership between the two countries in the field of education, which began in 2018 when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a partnership”. 

“We note that Saudi Arabia’s authorities are actively seeking international partnerships, including with UK universities,” the open letter from Leeds academics, students and employees reads. 

“Such engagements should not veil the dire human rights situation in Saudi Arabia but allow for positive change in the country. Saudi Arabia’s internationalisation strategy makes it susceptible to respecting all terms and obligations of its international engagements, and such calls can lead to human rights victories, such as the release of prisoners of conscience.”  

Middle East Eye asked the University of Leeds if it intended to call for the immediate release of Salma al-Shehab. The university had not responded by the time of publication. 

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.