ISTANBUL – Faisal al Jarba fled his native Saudi Arabia late last year as the danger approached: after his employer, a powerful Saudi prince, was arrested and after a friend died under suspicious circumstances while in government custody .
Jarba, a prominent sheikh of a large tribe, traveled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to meet his relatives there. But that was not far enough. The Jordanian security officers surrounded his house one night in early June and took him away for questioning, assuring his family that he would return soon.
However, in a matter of days, they took him to the border with Saudi Arabia and handed him over to the Saudi authorities, according to two people familiar with the details of Jarba's forced repatriation, which has not been reported previously. No charges have been brought against Jarba, 45, and in the five months since he was captured, his family has not received any proof that he is still alive, the people said.
The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month by a team of Saudi agents sent from Riyadh has prompted a new scrutiny of the search for the kingdom of Saudi citizens abroad, from ordinary dissidents to deserters from the narrow ranks of the royal family. .
The effort to silence Saudi critics abroad dates back decades and during the tenure of several monarchs. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, has followed the practice with a particularly ruthless fervor since winning his position last year, analysts said, including making the return of dissidents abroad a formal policy of state, according to a Saudi official, who insisted that such returns should be negotiated instead of being coerced.
To repatriate its critics, the Saudi government has tried to lure them back or recruit friendly regional governments to arrest them or even carry out shameless kidnappings in Europe.
Saudi citizens have disappeared from hotel rooms, been taken from cars or diverted planes in which they flew. A Saudi dissident Prince said in a court file that he was injected in the neck and taken on a private plane from Geneva to Saudi Arabia. Years later, after he managed to leave the kingdom, he disappeared again and has not been heard from since.
"We know they can kill you; they can destroy their family or use them against them, "said a Saudi women's rights activist who applied for political asylum in the United States last year." It has always been that way, "he said, adding that the aggressive pursuit of Mohammed's critics had further shaken an already paranoid community of expatriate Saudis.
A Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comments on the kidnappings.
Jarba was not a dissident, but may have been wanted for his association with a branch of the royal family that had lost favor with the Saudi leadership, according to the two people familiar with the circumstances of his capture.
He was an old friend and confidant of Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a son of the late King Abdullah. Turki was arrested last November when Saudi authorities detained hundreds of people, including members of the royal family, business executives and government officials, in what was called an anti-corruption operation.
Although Jarba's friends and relatives have had no contact with him, they were able to reconstruct some details of his trip after he was arrested in the exclusive neighborhood of Abdoun in Amman. After his arrest, Jarba was briefly detained at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Amman before being escorted to the border. Once in Saudi Arabia, he spent several weeks in Jiddah, which serves as the government's capital during the summer months. At some point, they took him to Turki's house and asked him to open safe vaults inside. There were contradictory accounts of whether Jarba was able to do so.
Jarba had assumed that he would be safe in Amman, the two people said, partly because he was a sheikh in a large tribe, the Shammar, which had strong relations with the Jordanian monarchy.
A spokeswoman for the Jordanian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Jarba case.
But Jordanian officials would then tell Jarba's family they had been powerless to stop his abduction, according to one of the people informed about the Jarba case.
"This is bigger than us," Jordanian officials reportedly said.
The first reported case of kidnapping sponsored by the state by Saudi Arabia occurred on December 22, 1979, when the first major figure of the country's opposition, Nasser al-Saeed, disappeared from Beirut. He had fled the country after spending time in prison for organizing strikes and workers' revolts. He continued his criticism in exile and praised the capture of the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by militants as a popular uprising.
After his disappearance, Saudi Arabia, ruled by King Khalid bin Abdulaziz at the time, said that reports that Saeed had been abducted and returned to Saudi Arabia in a private plane were unfounded. He described Saeed as "insignificant".
While many of those who disappear are not heard again, one of the victims, Prince Sultan bin Turki bin Abdulaziz, grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia, was able to make public his abduction, presenting a criminal case against senior Saudi officials in a court of Geneva in 2014.
The complaint exposed details of a daring kidnapping in 2003, during the reign of King Fahd, and named the king's son, Abdulaziz bin Fahd, and the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Saleh bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh, as participants in the plot.
Sultan, whom friends describe as a character bigger than life, the kind of man who would order a strawberry cake in the middle of the night, was in Geneva for medical treatment. While abroad, he had publicly criticized the kingdom, calling for economic reform and highlighting human rights problems.
"He was warned to stop and told to come back and that everything would be fine," said Clyde Bergstresser, a Boston-based lawyer who was held by the prince. But Sultan refused to return, so the king's son and minister were sent to persuade him.
Sultan was invited to a residence of King Fahd on the outskirts of Geneva, the prince later recalled in interviews with satellite TV channels in Arabic.
He arrived with his German security guards, who later gave evidence that they saw Sultan talking to a cousin in the pool, before the two men entered the library without the guards. A short time later, five masked men arrived.
"He was thrown on the floor and injected with an anesthetic in his neck and intubated," Bergstresser said.
The Sultan security guards were told that they had voluntarily decided to return to the kingdom.
After seven years, during which Sultan said he was held largely under house arrest, imprisonment or in a hospital, he was allowed to leave Saudi Arabia after becoming seriously ill from a respiratory illness. He traveled to Boston to receive medical treatment and later presented his legal case.
However, on January 31, 2016, he made the mistake of boarding a Saudi aircraft, organized by the embassy in Paris, after his father invited him to visit Cairo.
The monitors on the aircraft that showed the plane's route to Cairo suddenly went out, according to Bergstresser. And the plane landed in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. "He was taken from the plane by force, screaming and screaming. I have not heard from him since, "said Bergstresser, adding that the members of the prince's retinue were held for several days and then released.
Almost at the same time, two other princes based in Europe disappeared. The cases were reported for the first time by the BBC last year.
Prince Turki bin Bandar, known for his insulting tirades against the Saudi royal family, including murder allegations, disappeared in 2015 after he had fled Saudi Arabia after a land dispute and had established himself as a residence.
Another minor royal, Saud bin Saif al-Nasr, also disappeared after he urged reforms in the kingdom and publicly endorsed a letter from an anonymous Saudi royal who circulated widely in 2015 to call for a regime change. He was persuaded to board a private plane to Italy for what he thought was a business trip, but has not been known about since, the BBC reported.
In an interview with the Russian news website Sputnik last year, Prince Turki al Faisal, a royal member who heads the King Faisal Islamic Research and Studies Center, dismissed the cases of the so-called "princes", saying that Interpol notices were issued for their arrests.
"We do not like to publish these things because we consider them our domestic issue," he said. "Of course, there were people who worked to bring them back. They are here; they did not disappear. They are seeing their families. "
The Moroccan government said recently that it had extradited Prince Turki bin Bandar to Saudi Arabia to comply with an Interpol order.
But in a statement, Interpol said he had not issued a notice of any kind for him or for princes Saud and Sultan.
Like Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia, many self-exiled dissidents flee as far as they can from the Middle East, fearing that Saudi Arabia's allies will extradite them.
In an interview with The Washington Post, several months before his death, Khashoggi spoke about the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women's rights activist who was arrested in March while driving in Abu Dhabi, where she had been studying , and later returned to Saudi Arabia. Saudi and told him to stop publishing on social networks. A few months later, she was arrested, imprisoned and described as a traitor in the state media.
When Hathloul was approached in Abu Dhabi, her husband, Fahad Albutairi, a comedian, was abducted from his hotel room in Jordan and returned to Saudi Arabia, according to two people who were aware of the incident.
"It is intimidation," Khashoggi said. "Teach these people a lesson, make people afraid."