Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to touch down in London on Sunday to pay his respects to the Queen has been condemned by Hatice Cengiz and other human rights defenders as a “stain” on the monarch’s memory and an attempt by the Saudi crown prince to use mourning to “seek legitimacy and normalisation”.
Cengiz, who was engaged to Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in the Istanbul consulate in 2018, said she wished that Prince Mohammed would be arrested for murder when he lands in London, but said she feared that UK authorities would turn a blind eye to serious and credible allegations against the future king.
A source has told the Guardian that Prince Mohammed will travel to the UK to deliver his kingdom’s condolences to the royal family, though there was no confirmation or information about whether he would attend the funeral service at Westminster Abbey. CNN Arabic first reported the news on Thursday night.
A declassified US intelligence report released in 2021 found that the operation to kill or kidnap Khashoggi was approved by Prince Mohammed. The report said its assessment was based on the crown prince’s “control of decision making”, the “direct involvement of a key adviser and members of [the prince’s] protective detail”, and his “support for using violent measures” to silence dissenters. The crown prince has denied he was personally involved in planning the murder.
“The Queen’s passing is a truly sad occasion,” Cengiz said. “The crown prince should not be allowed to be part of this mourning and not be allowed to stain her memory and use this time mourning to seek legitimacy and normalisation.”
The news that the heir to the Saudi throne would make his first trip to London since 2018 was met with dismay among some Saudis in exile, including Abdullah Alaoudh, a Washington-based Saudi dissident who is the research director of Dawn, a non-profit founded by Khashoggi that promotes democracy in the Middle East.
Alaoudh said Prince Mohammed’s trip came as Saudi Arabia was cracking down “harsher and harder” on human rights defenders at home, including the recent arrest of Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old PhD student at Leeds university who was arrested on a trip home to the kingdom and sentenced to 34 years in jail for using Twitter.
“He is getting emboldened to travel the world after the Khashoggi matter as the result of the dedicated rehabilitation process – whether they call it this or not – of western leaders,” Alaoudh said, referring to visits to the kingdom by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden.
The former UK ambassador to Riyadh, Sir John Jenkins, said of the Saudi leadership: “I think they like Charles. First of all, he visited – and got around.
“His mother had visited too … and while she was greatly respected, it all felt a bit remote. Charles was not remote. He visited the Gulf regularly, received princes privately and officially in London. And he paid attention. Plus he’d made an effort to learn some Arabic. And his early 90s speech at the Oxford Islamic centre, plus subsequent interventions, was admired and remembered.”
In its report, CNN Arabic said Prince Mohammed would not attend the funeral. Alaoudh, whose father is a reformist cleric facing a death sentence in Saudi Arabia, said he believed the decision probably reflected the crown prince’s fragile ego.
“He would be seated behind other powerful figures,” Alaoudh said. “But MBS wants full acknowledgment of his power, his existence, of getting in the front row. He cares a lot about these symbols and does not want to be humiliated.”
Another activist, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the UK-based director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “Authoritarian dictators should not use the Queen’s death as an opportunity to try to rehabilitate their image while they escalate repressive campaigns in their countries.”
Protests have already been planned against the visit of Prince Mohammed, as well as against visits by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain and leaders from the UAE. Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “The UK simply should not be welcoming dictators from states renowned for their atrocious human rights records.
“Although the leaders of Russia and Syria have rightly not received invitations to attend the Queen’s funeral, it sends a clear double standard to then welcome notorious Gulf despots such as King Hamad and Mohammed bin Salman, who continue to preside over appalling violations against those who dare to speak out in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”
Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, who investigated the murder of Khashoggi and whose life is alleged to have been threatened by a senior Saudi official, said Prince Mohammed’s plan to pay his respects brought to mind the murder of the Washington Post journalist, whose own family had been “denied the right to bury Jamal with the dignity he deserved”. Saudi Arabia has denied it intended to threaten Callamard.
The crown prince’s visit follows years of reports since Khashoggi’s murder that critics of the kingdom who live abroad have faced surveillance and threats by Saudi authorities, including in the UK.
A British judge ruled last month that a case against the kingdom brought by a dissident satirist who was targeted with spyware could proceed, in a decision that has been hailed as precedent-setting.