A Saudi princess, silenced

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/InsiderPrincess Basmah of Saudi Arabia, who is held without charge in a high-security prison in the kingdom.
  • Princess Basmah of Saudi Arabia was abducted in March 2019 and has been imprisoned since. Her charge was quietly dropped last year, but she remains detained.
  • In April 2020, she tweeted to say she was in jail and in critical health. This was the first time the public had heard from her in 13 months.
  • She begged Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, her cousin, for mercy. But then, silence.
  • This is the story of her mysterious disappearance. From a midnight birthday abduction to a foiled medical evacuation in a private jet, all in the shadow of a multi-billion euro inheritance.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It was getting late on February 28, 2019, when Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and her daughter, 28-year-old Suhoud al-Sharif, returned to their seafront penthouse in Jeddah.

A city on Saudi Arabia’s west coast, Jeddah is known for its easygoing pace. The corniche, a popular seafront park, is packed with families most evenings. Gentle winds roll off the Red Sea, passing the picnics, and crossing the road up into the city. It’s a relaxed Saudi Arabia.

At home, overlooking the corniche, the pair counted down the minutes until midnight, when it would be March 1, and the princess’ 54th birthday.

“O God, protect her with your eyes that do not sleep,” al-Sharif wrote on her private Facebook page, adding a photo of her mother, and rows of heart-shaped emojis.

As they sat, the elevator doors inside their penthouse slid open, and out stepped a group of eight men. The time stamp on the internal security tape read 11:41 p.m.

One man, wearing a traditional white thobe and headdress, strode around the apartment, talking relentlessly into a phone. The others, in T-shirts and jeans, milled around, looking to him for directions.

Two of the men, built like nightclub bouncers, held revolvers, while another kept the elevator doors open, waving his hand over the sensor.

Saudi basmah apartment cctvABCA still from a security tape, bearing the time 11:47 p.m. on February 28, 2019, taken from inside Basmah’s apartment.

One finally noticed the cameras, and hastened to cover them with table cloths. The security footage went dark.

Basmah and her daughter have not been seen in public since.

“She was told there was a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed,” a close family member of Basmah told Insider. Instead, “they took her straight to the prison.”

This person asked to be anonymous to avoid retribution, but their identity is known to Insider.

“Covering the cameras simply explains it, it’s common sense,” they said. “This was a hostage situation.”

Held without charge

That prison is al-Ha’ir, a maximum-security facility 25 miles south of Riyadh famous for housing ISIS and al-Qaeda insurgents.

It’s a place that many members of the Saudi royal family likely know well.

It’s where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since coming to power in 2017, jailed a number of senior royals as well as a stream of public intellectuals and activists, including the women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

The silencing of potential opposition has been a defining feature of Crown Prince Mohammed’s rule.

The most famous instance came in November 2017, months after his ascension to power, when hundreds of royals and business magnates were detained for days in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.

More recently, in March 2020, Saudi state security agents snuck into the Riyadh home of former Saudi intelligence official Saad al-Jabri and pulled two of his children from their beds. It came after Al-Jabri, who lives in Canada, refused to return home.

Mohammed bin salman mbsReutersSaudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 30, 2018.

But Basmah’s disappearance doesn’t match the crown prince’s usual modus operandi.

The princess had spent much of her life outside Saudi Arabia, first as a student, then as a campaigner and businesswoman.

She almost never involved herself in royal politics. She had criticised aspects of Saudi society, but that was before Crown Prince Mohammed’s ascension.

Upon arrival at al-Ha’ir, Basmah was told she had been detained “on suspicion of trying to flee,” according to the close relative. The charge: procuring a fake passport.

Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate for Prisons and the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

‘Cryptic calls’

After her disappearance, Basmah’s children – sons Ahmed and Saud, and daughters Sara and Samahir – worried for their mother and sister.

SaudiPrincess Basmah Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz speaks during a discussion on the role of women in the Middle East at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC on April 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)GettyBasmah at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017.

For weeks, they could only guess where she was.

“That’s when we got the cryptic calls,” Leonard Bennett, her US-based attorney, told Insider. “She said she couldn’t leave. She said she couldn’t say where she was, but that there were people right there.”

From then on, once a week in turn, the family members’ phones would ring and Basmah would come on the line But she was vague – and, as it turned out, being supervised.

Her relatives asked for photos, videos, anything to assure them of her wellbeing, but she said it was forbidden. At one point, the guards told her to stop speaking in English.

One day in May 2019, prison guards pushed a piece of paper in front of Basmah. It said that the charge against her was dropped.

But, according to the family member, they said she and her daughter didn’t have permission to let her leave al-Ha’ir.

It made no sense. Why would they keep her there?

Saudi women phoneReutersA Saudi woman speaks on the phone in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 2, 2017.

For her inner circle, who hadn’t seen her for nine months, the news seemed a terrible omen of what was to come. Going public was the only option.

Deutsche Welle broke the story of Basmah’s disappearance in November 2019 – eight months after her capture – and in April 2020, security footage recorded inside her apartment on the night of her disappearance was leaked to the Spanish newspaper ABC.

Businesswoman, mother, humanitarian

Basmah has commanded successful careers in business, journalism, and humanitarianism, all while raising five children.

Her kindly, gregarious manner and commitment to helping the needy led to her being nicknamed the Oprah Winfrey of the Middle East.

Basmah spent her early years in Beirut, Lebanon, with her Syrian mother Princess Jamilla bint Asad. She attended private school in England and then colleges in Oxford and Switzerland.

In 1975, 11-year-old Basmah was flown to Saudi Arabia to meet Shuja al-Sharif, her arranged husband-to-be. Thirteen years later, in 1988, they wed, and had five children together.

They stopped communicating shortly after that, and the children chose to stay with their mother. Her husband fell ill in 2017, and died on March 5, 2018.

Suhoud Al Sharif and Princess BasmahRoyal BridgesBasmah (centre, in white) and her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif (left).

As a businesswoman Basmah founded the catering groups Saudi Gourmet and Craze Brasseries, the communications firm Media Ecco, and finally, her flagship project, the Global United Lanterns Foundation. The Lanterns raised and distributed funds to those working for the good of humanity.

She visited refugee camps, wrote polemics in Saudi and western newspapers, and lectured at the UN General Assembly, Chatham House, and the Oxford and Cambridge Unions. Her passions – cooking, fashion, and her children – followed her around the world.

Basmah never seemed interested in money.

“She was totally committed to people and their plights,” Ronnie Goodman, an events manager who organised Basmah’s public life for nearly a decade, told Insider.

“Very empathetic, very compassionate. There was nothing that she wouldn’t do to ease the suffering of others, from a financial perceptive, as well as just putting herself in harm’s way.”

In 2011, Basmah moved her family to Acton, west London, where she founded the Lanterns. Five years later she published “The Fourth Way,” a book outlining a new model for governance focusing on global inequality.

“She knows she came from a very privileged background and so she used that to help humanity,” Bennett told Insider. “No question.”

“She spent her money, her time, and her energies travelling the world doing projects. That’s who she is.”

For this reason, Basmah’s current troubles sit uncomfortably with her former colleagues.

“
Suffering to her was just unthinkable. So that’s why I’m very disturbed and bothered by her situation. It’s not like her to end up in a situation totally the opposite of what she was fighting for,” Goodman said.

Her work – which she cared about more than anything – has also come to a standstill.

“Nothing can be passed on to her: no papers, no work. So many of her projects, contracts, and work has stopped. Destroyed, basically,” the close family member said.

Medical crises, apparently ignored by the kingdom

For all her success in business, Basmah’s life has been blighted by ill health – she suffers from colonic and heart issues as well as osteoporosis.

In September 2018, her condition got so bad that she had to step back from many directorships at her companies.

And by October 2018, she was in desperate need of medical attention.

Over the last decade, she had been making regular trips from the UK and US to visit Dr Mounir Ziadé, a rheumatology specialist based in Geneva, Switzerland.

By this time Basmah was back living in Saudi Arabia full time for the first time in decades. The move home was prompted by the arrest of her son and death of her husband.

Saud, the son, was among scores of royals detained and accused of corruption in one of Crown Prince Mohammed’s purges in 2017.

“They didn’t find anything against him, so they let him out, but it took a while,” a business associate of the princess told Insider. The associate asked to remain anonymous, but their identity is known to Insider.

Saudi Princess Basmah Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz speaks during a discussion on the role of women in the Middle East at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC on April 12, 2017. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)MANDEL NGAN/AFP via GettyBasmah during a discussion on the role of women in the Middle East at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2017.

The arrest disturbed Basmah, said Goodman. “It hurt her and she had to resolve it, and that was her mission at the time to put everything on the back burner to get this resolved.”

So she stayed. Then she struggled to leave.

Royals need permission to leave Saudi Arabia – they need a visa granted only by the kingdom’s royal court. But two applications she made to leave, in March 2018 and September 2018, had gone unaddressed.

She felt out of options. Her health was in crisis, but the kingdom didn’t seem concerned.

But then hope came in the form of Red Star Aviation, a private-jet service based in Turkey.

The firm specialises in medical evacuations and had a fleet of ICU-equipped air ambulances ready to take her from Saudi Arabia to her doctor in Switzerland at a moment’s notice.

Commercial aircraft almost always need permission to leave from the local aviation authority before takeoff, and Red Star assured Basmah it could succeed where she had not.

“They convinced us they could handle the documentation and paperwork,” Bennett said. “They assured us they had these things in order. They said: ‘Yes we have permission.'”

Dr mounir Ziadé basmah letterSuppliedAn open letter from Dr Mounir Ziadé, dated December 15, 2017, confirming Basmah’s need for urgent medical treatment.

So, on the morning of December 22, 2018, Basmah headed to Jeddah airport in an ambulance with al-Sharif, as directed by their contact at Red Star Aviation. An air ambulance jet was waiting to take them to Geneva, at a cost of $US87,000.

But five hours after arriving on the tarmac, they were still in the van, waiting. Permission to leave had not been granted. Her ill health was evidently not a concern of the royal court.

The medical evacuation was aborted, and news of the scene spread through her family, back to the royal palace in in Riyadh.

Red Star Aviation did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

A share of a multi-billion euro inheritance

This was the first major sign something was wrong, but at least Basmah left unscathed. Three months later she would be snatched from her home in the dead of the night. But why?

Basmah is the youngest daughter of King Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the second ruler of Saudi Arabia. In 1964, he was overthrown by his brother Faisal, and fled to Geneva shortly after.

But by the time of his death, in Greece in 1969, he was an extremely rich man.

He presided over Saudi Arabia in a period where it grew rich on oil from its eastern fields. Safaniya, the world’s largest offshore oil field, was discovered in the Arabian Gulf two years before he became king.

And as one of his 115 children, Basmah is entitled to a share of his inheritance.

The business associate, who has knowledge of the inheritance, told Insider it ranks in the “billions of euros.”

King Saud of Saudi Arabia (1902-1969)Corbis via Getty ImagesKing Saud of Saudi Arabia, Basmah’s father.

But some of those assets – which, according to the source, includes Swiss bank accounts, lands, jewellery, cars, and houses – has been plundered, members of her inner circle told Insider.

For instance, the land on which Ta’if University – which was built in 2004 – currently sits belongs to Princess Basmah, the associate said.

However, the land was developed without Basmah’s permission. Such unauthorised use is effectively theft, the person said.

In a letter dated December 2016, seen by Insider, Basmah had written to the royal court to highlight the injustice of the Ta’if expropriation.

The reply from Khalid bin Faisal al-Saud, governor of Mecca province – where Ta’if is located – indicated it was too late.

Her attempts to access her inheritance is the real reason why she was locked away, her family member and the associate said, and not an attempt to flee the country or secure a fake passport.

Ta'if universityTaif UniversityAn image of Ta’if University in Mecca province, Saudi Arabia.

“They are saying: ‘You let go of all of this, or we’re going to keep you,'” the family member said of her imprisonment.

When asked who was orchestrating the mission against her, the family member and business associate said they couldn’t identify one person, but knew it was someone within the royal court.

Their identity remains a mystery.

A still from security footage taken inside Basmah's apartment on the night of her disappearance.ABCA still from security footage taken inside Basmah’s apartment on the night of her disappearance.

‘The Turkey connection’

Basmah’s inner circle is also considering the chance that she was suspected of leaving the country to help probe the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Red Star Aviation had in December 2018 planned to take Basmah to Geneva via Istanbul. The stop could have been a red flag to Saudi authorities.

“Some of her relatives, all royals, questioned the Turkey connection,” Bennett told Insider. “There was some blowback after that.”

“She understood she had the full attention of the government then. The refusal [to leave Saudi Arabia] was very clear.”

Tensions were already high in Saudi Arabia on the day of the flight. That morning, 11 Saudi state security agents went on trial in Riyadh, accused of killing Khashoggi. Eight were sentenced to death the next day.

(On May 21, 2020, Salah Khashoggi forgave his father’s murderers, a form of reprieve which means their death sentences may never be executed.)

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2018, file photo released by Saudi Press Agency, Salah Khashoggi, left, a son of Jamal Khashoggi, shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The family of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi announced Friday, May 22, 2020 that they have forgiven his Saudi killers, giving automatic legal reprieve to the five government agents convicted of his murder who'd been sentenced to execution. (Saudi Press Agency via AP, File)Associated PressSalah Khashoggi, son of Jamal Khashoggi, shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on October 23, 2018.

Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, had also just called for an investigation into the murder.

The royal family may have feared what Basmah could do in Turkey, given her history of rights advocacy, Bennett said.

Dr. Erika Bennett, head of mission at the Diaspora African Forum, who has known and worked with Princess Basmah since 2010, told Insider: “She wasn’t trying to escape. We were very concerned about her health.”

‘She wasn’t trying to escape’

On April 16, 2020, 13 months after her disappearance from the Jeddah apartment, the princess’ long-dormant Twitter account surged into life.

“Release me as I have done no wrong. My current health status is very critical,” the first of three breathless messages read. The Princess said she was in al-Ha’ir, and appealed to Crown Prince Mohammed for mercy.

Basmah is at extreme risk from contracting the novel coronavirus, which the family says has breached al-Ha’ir.

Hours after the tweets were sent, they were deleted. According to the business associate, her verified Twitter account had been hacked. The princess’ official website also went dark.

Back in al-Ha’ir, the guards banned Basmah from contacting the outside world and her personal Saudi bank account was frozen, the business associate told Insider.

Al ha'iral-ArabiyaA rare view inside a cell block of al-Ha’ir prison in Saudi Arabia.

Eleven days after breaking her silence on Twitter, her account reignited, this time carrying a message from her team.

“The media office is hereby urgently requesting the authorities, once more, during this month of Ramadan, to compassionately free Princess Basmah and her daughter, Sohoud,” an April 27 tweet said. (Sohoud is an alternative spelling of Suhoud.)

Every year in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of prisoners are pardoned during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended this year on May 23. Basmah was not among them.

Her family told Insider they do not know if Crown Prince Mohammed is aware of Basmah’s internment, but said that numerous letters sent to him by the princess from al-Ha’ir – reviewed by Insider – all went unanswered.

Basmah’s American allies are ‘hiding under the cloth of fear’

After the abandoned medical evacuation, Basmah began planning her upcoming speaking engagements with Goodman, her longtime events coordinator.

One day, in February 2019, the pair were working through her June diary. They had stops in California, New York, and Atlanta. It was going to be a typically busy month.

“The next thing I knew, after not hearing from her for a couple of days, [I] was going online and looking at our websites,” Goodman said. They were “shut down, gone.”

Letter Basmah to King SalmanSuppliedA letter to King Salman written by Basmah from al-Ha’ir prison asking for an explanation for her detention.

After hours on the phone, Goodman finally found out, through one of Basmah’s children, that the princess had been taken.

He turned straight to the princess’ network – which included US senators and members of Congress, and their Saudi counterparts – for support.

But those with the power to help her did nothing, according to Dr Bennett, the princess’ colleague for ten years.

“They’re hiding under the cloth of fear, and are afraid of what the government will do to them,” she told Insider.

“There are things I can and cannot say but, in terms of people you love and care about, when you have a chance to shed light on who they are, it’s your duty to do that.”

What next?

That Basmah broke silence to go public on Twitter in the first place was uncharacteristic and spoke volumes about her precarious situation.

Even in 2017 when her son Saud was arrested and accused of corruption, she refused to go public, according to Bennett and Goodman.

“Let me handle it. It’s my family and my country,” Basmah had said, according to Bennett.

“She’s very loyal to her family and her country,” he added.

Only once in 2013, Basmah was left with no option but to go public with her personal troubles when a blackmail attempt landed on her doorstep.

Blackmailers had sent her a grainy webcam video, in which the princess could be seen with her head uncovered, smoking a cigarette, and blowing the camera a kiss. The blackmailer – who first claimed to be an admirer – said $US500,000 would make it go away.

But Basmah did not yield.

“In Saudi Arabia it is a scandal for a woman to smoke and not have anything on her head,” she told The Sunday Telegraph at the time.

“It is like seeing Princess Kate with no bra,” she added, referring to Kate Middleton, the British royal who was photographed sunbathing topless in 2012. “It has the same effect.”

The response was typical of Basmah, who was unashamed to advance her liberal beliefs and values.

But as her health deteriorates, and the chance of release ebbs away, her family is now putting their hope in the hands of global institutions.

Basmah MBS bin Salman Princess SaudiWireImage/ReutersA composite image of Basmah and Crown Prince Mohammed.

The European Parliament is currently drafting a resolution that calls on Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners, including Basmah, the business associate said.

On March 5, 2020, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions contacted the Saudi Foreign Ministry to urge Basmah’s release, but are yet to receive a reply.

A spokesperson for the working group told Insider: “Due to the confidentiality of the proceedings we are not in a position to comment.”

Basmah’s family member told Insider that despite the odds, they still have hope.

“We really hope to get justice from what has been done. She does not deserve this,” the person said.

“We need to stay strong. God is with us.”

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