Human rights group calls for Saudi Arabia to lift travel ban on US citizen

By: Joseph Lyttleton

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Human rights advocates are calling on Saudi Arabia to lift a travel ban on the Saudi-American doctor, Walid Fitaihi. Despite Fitaihi’s release by the Saudi government after a 20-month detainment, the physician and members of his family, who are all US citizens, are currently forbidden from leaving Saudi Arabia. 

Who is Walid Fitaihi?

Fitaihi, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Saudi Arabia, is a 55-year-old doctor and TV personality. He trained at Harvard and worked as a doctor in Massachusetts. In 2006, he returned to his birth place, Jeddeh, Saudi Arabia, where his family founded a hospital. 

Fitaihi was formerly a popular TV presenter in Saudi Arabia, best known for his motivational speeches. 

Why was Fitaihi arrested?

On November 4, 2017, the Saudi government, led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, conducted a massive anti-corruption purge. This resulted in hundreds of arrests or firings of prominent government and social figures, including Fitaihi. Despite being held for 20 months after his arrest, Fitaihi was never officially charged with any crime.

The allegedly anti-corruption motivation for these arrests has been questioned. Some believe that the crown prince, who ascended to next-in-line to the throne in 2017, was motivated by financial interests and a desire to consolidate power before assuming the throne. 

His father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is 83-years-old.

In addition to being held without charges, it’s been reported Fitaihi was tortured by being beaten and electrocuted. Fitaihi’s son, Ahmed, who had previously been detained by the Saudi government, testified to the US Congress regarding his father’s treatment.

Saudi Arabia denies they torture their prisoners.


What happened after Fitaihi was released?

Ahmed Fitaihi’s testimony that his father, an American citizen, was tortured led to bipartisan demands from US lawmakers that Fitaihi be released, which he eventually was, in August 2019. 

Human Rights Watch is among those calling for the travel ban to be lifted. The human rights organization says the “vague charges” Fitaihi is facing are a result of the doctor having used his social media platform to decry the killing of peaceful protestors. As of now, the Saudi government has not responded to demands to lift the travel ban.  

The reforms of Mohammad bin Salman

The crown prince has been recognized for his efforts to draw his kingdom away from its ultra-conservative policies. This has included lifting a ban on female drivers and allowing movie theaters to reopen. Despite those efforts, bin Salman has been labeled a “fake reformer.”   

Critics say the crown prince’s regime has taken a hard line against any opposition, as exemplified by the November 2017 purge. Under bin Salman’s leadership, Saudi Arabia has been cracking down on any individual or group that criticizes his government. 

One of the most notable examples of this crack down was the assassination of government critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


The death of Jamal Khashoggi

Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist and a US resident. He fled Saudi Arabia in 2017 and had been critical of both Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and its king. In January 2018, Khashoggi tweeted in support of Fitaihi, expressing dismay at the doctor’s arrest.

In October 2018, Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He had visited the consulate to get a form he needed for marriage purposes, but promptly went missing. Initially, Saudi Arabia denied reports that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate. After evidence came out showing that Khashoggi had died in the consulate, the Saudi government claimed he had died in a fight.

The Saudi government denied involvement in the death and vowed to investigate it. However, Turkish officials provided evidence that 15 Saudi intelligence operatives had flown to Istanbul to kill and dismember Khashoggi.

On 23 December, Saudi Arabia announced it had sentenced five men to death for the killing of Khashoggi. This has been seen by some as an effort by bin Salman to cover up his role in the murder.

The state of Saudi and US relations

US President Donald Trump defended bin Salman in the wake of Khashoggi’s assassination, claiming the prince was innocent until proven guilty. Trump also said he didn’t want to pressure Saudi Arabia because the country invests hundreds of billions of dollars in the US.

Bruce Riedel, an expert on the Middle East and a scholar with the Brookings Institute, has said that Saudi Arabia is the US’s oldest ally in the region. 

The US – Saudi relationship is largely built on the US providing security to the kingdom in return for access to the nation’s oil reserves. However, Riedel believes that bin Salman’s leadership is straining that relationship.