Saudi Arabia just imprisoned an aid worker for running an anti-government Twitter page. His sister says it shows MBS is testing Biden’s pledge to be tough on the kingdom.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan.

  • A Saudi terror court sentenced aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison on Tuesday.
  • His sister says it shows Biden’s plan to punish Saudi Arabia for rights abuses is having little effect.
  • Saudi Arabia freed several activists in the face of US pressure, but continues to prosecute others.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sentenced an aid worker to 20 years in prison for running a Twitter account that he used to mock Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known also as MBS – and his government.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, was seized by Saudi secret police in March 2018 at the offices of the Saudi Red Crescent, an aid agency where he worked in Riyadh. He was sentenced by a specialist Saudi terror court but the specific charges remain undisclosed.

He also faces a 20-year travel ban after imprisonment.

His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, a US citizen who works in the Bay Area tech industry, told Insider that her brother’s sentencing is a clear sign that MBS is testing President Joe Biden’s promise to bring the Saudi leadership to heel over human-rights abuses.

In the two years leading up to his election, Biden talked tough on Saudi Arabia, promising in late 2019 to make the country’s leaders “the pariah they are” for silencing opposition and violating human rights.

But Areej al-Sadhan told Insider her brother’s sentence shows Saudi Arabia has no intention of letting the US dictate its internal affairs.

“Clearly the Saudis are testing President Biden’s commitment to the human rights first approach in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

“It just shows that the Saudi government are not serious about improving human rights at all.”

MBS Biden
A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden.

Insider contacted the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, and the Saudi Center for International Communication for comment.

Areej al-Sadhan went on to call on Biden and his administration to act.

“I ask President Biden to look at this seriously. We seriously need his help with human-rights activists, and to stand up for human rights as he promised. Just dismissing those abuses will lead to more abuses,” she told Insider.

‘They are feeling emboldened’

She added that Saudi Arabia is feeling untouchable because of the Biden administration’s failure to punish those responsible for the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident who often criticized the Saudi government.

The Biden administration in February released a US intelligence report that said that MBS approved the hit on Khashoggi, but did not include the crown prince on a list of 76 Saudi officials sanctioned over the murder.

“Without consequences to Khashoggi’s murder, they are feeling emboldened to commit more human-rights abuses,” she said.

mohammed bin salman mbs
Crown Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 20, 2019.

Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have yet to comment on al-Sadhan’s sentence, but, on Tuesday, the US State Department expressed concern.

“As we have said to Saudi officials at all levels, freedom of expression should never be a punishable offense,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also released a statement slamming the kingdom’s treatment of al-Sadhan, saying: “The brutal sentencing of humanitarian aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, which follows his years-long disappearance and imprisonment without trial, is a grave and appalling injustice.”

“Riyadh needs to know that the world is watching its disturbing actions and that we will hold it accountable,” she added.

How al-Sadhan got caught

The exposure of al-Sadhan’s Twitter account is thought to be linked to a 2016 Twitter hack conducted by two Saudi spies employed by Twitter in San Francisco.

The hack saw Saudi authorities unmask scores of accounts that had been critical of the crown prince and Saudi state.

One dissident who had his account hacked, the Gulf analyst Ali al-Ahmed, previously told Insider the breach led to several of his contacts in Saudi Arabia being disappeared. He is suing Twitter for damages.

Ali al-Ahmed
Saudi scholar Ali al-Ahmed seen in Washington, DC, in 2018.

Areej al-Sadhan told Insider that her brother’s Twitter account was accessed by Saudi authorities, but that it’s unclear whether it was a result of the hack of al-Ahmed’s Twitter account.

Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to pressure Saudi Arabia into reigning in its human-rights abuses, and the move has come alongside some advancements.

In February, the US ended support for the Saudi-led Yemen war and Blinken called on his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, to remedy the kingdom’s poor human-rights record. The White House also made a petty dig at MBS, announcing that Biden’s counterpart in the kingdom was King Salman rather than the crown prince.

Several prominent rights activists were partially freed in 2021, most notably the women’s-right-to-drive activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

In February, Bader al-Ibrahim, a Saudi scientist, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of the detained women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, were also released. They were detained in April 2019 and charged with crimes relating to terror offenses.

They all remain under travel bans.

Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan was educated in the US, graduating from Notre Dame de Namur University in California in 2013.

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Saudi Arabia’s $500 million mega-city Neom is creating plans to harvest an unprecedented amount of data from future residents. Experts say it’s either dystopian or genius.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and a rendering of what Neom's The Line city transport underbelly will look like.
A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a rendering of Neom’s The Line transport system.

  • Saudi Arabia is building a futuristic mega city from scratch named Neom.
  • The city plans to ask future residents to submit a huge amount of personal data to help it run.
  • Experts said technophiles would flock to Neom, but warned about potential mass surveillance.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that a new city would be built from scratch in Saudi Arabia’s northwest deserts.

Neom would be “a place for dreamers,” he said, adding the $500 billion city would run by artificial intelligence and be funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.

Early plans for the city imagined flying taxis, holographic teachers, and an artificial moon. But few concrete details emerged until this January, when Neom authorities announced “The Line,” a string of settlements connected by a vast subterranean transport system.

Beating back doubts over funding and feasibility, work is moving ahead, as it is at several of the crown prince’s other pet projects.

An image showing "The Line" string of settlements that will make up Neom.
An image showing “The Line” string of settlements that will make up Neom.

Last month James Bradley, Neom’s head of technology, told ZDNet he wanted to collect 90% of available data from residents and smart infrastructure. Existing smart cities use about 1% of such data, Bradley added, without providing specifics.

Bradley’s interview is the first insight into how Neom will run. The Neom press office declined to comment for this story.

Current smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, use data from internet of things sensors to perform actions like alert people when their bus is approaching or prevent water waste – but nothing in existence comes close to Neom’s plan.

How ‘Neos’ works

Coordinating Neom’s data-collection effort will be an operating system called Neos, Bradley said.

Each resident would have a unique ID number, and Neos would process data from heart-rate monitors, phones, facial-recognition cameras, bank details, and thousands of internet of things devices around the city, per the plans reported by ZDNet.

For example, Neos would know if you had fallen over, and if you stayed down too long, it would deploy drones to your location and alert emergency services, ZDNet reported. You wouldn’t need to check into your hotel room online or at a desk, as a door-handle fingerprint scanner will suffice, ZDNet reported.

“Neom will be proactive,” Bradley told the outlet. “It can take action. And ultimately, it is personalized.”

For some, such extreme digital intrusion is an ominous prospect, but Neom is interested in attracting those who embrace the future.

Residents will have the option of choosing how much personal data they submit to Neos, Bradley told ZDNet, adding: “An individual’s right to privacy is theirs, but the ability to use that information is directly correlated to the value they receive.”

It is not clear whether Neom would require residents to pass over a minimum amount of data for basic functionalities.

Bradley NEom
James Bradley, Neom head of technology, talking about the city’s proposed underground transport network.

Convenience utopia or surveillance nightmare?

Experts described Neos as an extraordinary proposition, but noted that the deep level of technological integration could deter many from moving there – and leave the door open to a nefarious exploitation of personal data.

“Neom says you can opt in and opt out, but people will be skeptical of the truth of that,” Jonathan Richenthal, the author of “Smart Cities for Dummies,” told Insider.

“We hear too many stories where we thought there was a sensor on a traffic light that was used to count traffic but also had a camera in it that they didn’t switch off.”

Vincent Mosco, the author of “The Smart City in a Digital World,” added that Neom would have to show total transparency over the data gathered.

“We have no clear sense of what will be done with it,” he told Insider. “From what we know about Saudi Arabia, you know it’s unlikely to be used for good.”

Saudi Arabia’s government has been accused of hacking the phones of journalists, dissidents, and activists, as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Mosco and Richenthal both cited the case of a smart-city district proposed for Toronto in 2017 by Google’s SideWalk Labs that was scrapped in 2020 over surveillance concerns.

“No one trusted Google to manage data well or not pry on every activity you’re doing,” Richenthal said.

“You transfer that to a region of the world that inherently has transparency challenges already, and it gets more complicated.”

The Line Neom
“The Line” at Neom, a string of cities connected by an underground transport system.

‘People will value the convenience’

Other experts noted that for technophiles and those greedy for convenience, utilizing their personal data is not an issue.

“We like rewards,” Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, a professor of Digital Urban Systems at University College London, told Insider.

“People will buy into this as long as they’re given an incentive for it. That may be better healthcare, which is what Neom has said.”

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst and member of Neom’s advisory board, suggested that much of the data Neom plans to harness is likely already being taken by tech companies today.

“People will value the convenience and the associated elimination of bureaucracy … over sharing their digital data that many assume is already in the public domain given the technology that they use,” he told Insider in an email, citing the use of smartphones and smartwatches.

For many, surrendering personal data isn’t an issue, added Professor Jiska Englebert, a communications and smart-city expert at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in Rotterdam.

Neom’s residents are likely to be “the kind of people who say, ‘I don’t care, it will be quite impersonal, and if is is personal it will give me all kinds of benefits,'” she told Insider.

NEOM Saudi
The site of Neom in Tabuk Province, Saudi Arabia.

For other experts, the main barrier Neom faces is not a concern over surveillance.

“The main challenge is to create a society in the middle of nowhere, rather than to make people comfortable with the idea of sharing personal data and being surrounded by drones, robots, and AI,” Federico Cugurullo, an assistant professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who studies smart-city ecosystems, told Insider.

By and large, experts are excited about Neom, though they caveat that smart cities rarely resemble their original blueprints.

Richenthal said he was especially optimistic about Neom’s health-focused ethos, given that current cities place huge stress on their residents’ daily lives. For example, Neom plans to be car-free, reducing air and noise pollution, and have abundant green space.

“Every city eventually needs to upgrade and we are desperately looking for good ideas,” he said.

“This could create a bar for cities to learn what’s possible, what works.”

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