A Saudi dissident living in Canada says he believes the people who ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi were also after him.
“Honestly, they came for me first,” he says.
Omar Abdulaziz says Saudi operatives visited Montreal in May in an effort to lure him back to the Kingdom.
This spring, two representatives of the Saudi government visited Montreal to meet Abdulaziz. One of his brothers was brought along as well to apply pressure. Abdulaziz says his brother was paid to make the trip.
The three had several meetings with Abdulaziz, claiming they had been sent by the crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, to convince him to return. He says there were no threats, but since the death of Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, he’s been left wondering about an invitation the men made. They wanted him to get a new passport.
“They asked me to go to the Saudi embassy in Ottawa,” he says. “I said, ‘OK,’ and then I refused. I didn’t think they were going to do something stupid here in Canada, but after what happened to Jamal, I’m not going to even cross the street.”
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A vocal critic of the Saudi regime, Abdulaziz has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter. He says right now he’s spending about 15 hours a day online.
The 27-year-old came to Canada in 2009 to study English at McGill University. His scholarship from the Saudi government was pulled over online criticism of the country’s leadership.
Abdulaziz was granted permanent residency status in Canada in 2014. He’s now studying at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que.
Over the last several months, Abdulaziz and Khashoggi struck up a friendship. The two dissidents were working together on several projects, including one to help activists inside Saudi Arabia hide their identities online.
Abdulaziz says Khashoggi has lost his voice, but his is louder than ever.
“I’m really sorry it happened because of the death of my friend,” he says. “What happened to Jamal, trust me, did not scare me, but made me stronger and also eager to change the situation more and more.”
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Since refusing to return home to Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz says the government has gone after his family and friends. This summer, two of his brothers and eight friends were arrested.
Abdulaziz says none of those arrested were involved in politics. Their only crime was that they knew him.
“They couldn’t do anything to hurt me, to stop me, but now they have my friends and my family members,” he says. “It’s just crazy, but it’s what happened.”
The death of Khashoggi, Abdulaziz says, has backfired. He says because the operation has been exposed, the Saudi leadership and the crown prince are facing criticism from around the world.
Mohammed Bin Salman, he says, sells himself as a reformer, but acts like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.
“You cannot be like First World nations while you act like a dictator from the Third World,” he says. “We’re going to keep fighting. We’re going to tell our people that we deserve a better life, and things are going to change soon.”