Iyad el-Baghdadi, a vocal pro-democracy activist and strong critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has begged Norwegian authorities to ensure his family’s safety.
The Palestinian-born writer was taken into protective custody by Norway’s security services last month after a threat to his life, reportedly emanating from Saudi Arabia, was intercepted.
El-Baghdadi has been a prominent online presence since the Arab Spring, when his English-language tweets pillorying the powerful and pompous of the Middle East found a receptive international audience eager for context to the uprisings.
“I’ve been told by experts that my family are a soft target – and securing their safety is my top priority… Norway, please bring my family to safety, please,” he said at a press conference in the Norwegian capital on Monday.
El-Baghdadi said he was informed of a specific threat against him on April 25, when agents knocked on his door to take him to a safe house, eight months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“I wasn’t surprised when they turned up at my door. I think the first thing I said was ‘what took you so long?’
“I didn’t know then they had received a tip from the CIA, they told me that later.”
El-Baghdadi was granted asylum in Norway four years ago after he was forced to leave his home in the UAE, which is also known for targeting political dissidents who post criticism of the country’s leadership on social media.
The activist is behind The Arab Tyrant Manual, which focuses on global authoritarianism and the struggle for democratic liberties in the Arab region, and is a fellow at Civita, a leading liberal think-tank in Norway.
“It seems to me that MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] is shedding his reformist image,” said el-Baghdadi.
“The image of the enlightened reformer has suited him well. But it is gone.”
Among the support he had received, el-Baghdadi said he was sent a message from a fellow dissident in the Arab world that read: “If you are threatened in Norway, what chance do I have?”
El-Baghdadi said Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, sent “ripples of fear” through dissident communities, asking: “If Jeff Bezos [the Amazon founder with a $150bn fortune] can be blackmailed, who’s safe?”
Norway, please bring my family to safety, please
But the activist also issued a challenge.
“The Norway oil fund continues to be invested in Saudi Arabia. I will say no more, but leave it to individual consciences.”
He concluded with a rallying call for solidarity with those living under repressive regimes in the Middle East.
“When you look at the region, you see authoritarian hysteria, failed states, civil wars, proxy wars – but also popular uprisings and democratic movements,” he said. “This is the battle of a generation, and history is in good hands… We’re not free until we’re all free, and we’re not safe until we’re all safe.”