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Fears rise over safety of detained Saudi princess, family confidant says

“[If] she’s dead or alive we have no idea, we literally have no single clue," said someone close to the Saudi princess.
Image: Saudi Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz
Saudi Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz speaks during a discussion on the role of women in the Middle East in Washington, D.C. in 2017. Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

LONDON — Relatives of a Saudi princess, a women’s rights advocate, who says she is imprisoned in the Gulf kingdom are concerned for her health after contact was cut with her two months ago, a source close to the family has said.

Princess Basmah Bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 56, a businesswoman and a granddaughter of the country’s founding king, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, was taken from her home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in March last year and imprisoned along with her daughter, Souhoud Al-Sharif, 28, the family confidant told NBC News.

“[If] she’s dead or alive we have no idea, we literally have no single clue,” the person said, on the condition of anonymity because of fears for personal safety.

NBC News could not independently confirm the circumstances of Basmah’s disappearance or her detention. Saudi Arabian authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

In the past, Basmah has spoken about her commitment to promoting women’s entrepreneurship and leadership in the Arab world. But now, the confidant believes, Basmah being an outspoken woman in a prominent position, along with asking for her inheritance, may be among the reasons she is imprisoned.

In recent years, the kingdom has worked to improve its image abroad and attract foreign investment, a campaign that was hurt badly by the gruesome murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which a United Nations investigation found senior Saudi figures could be liable.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival to attend the annual speech of the Saudi King at the shura council, a top advisory body, in the capital Riyadh in 2019. AFP - Getty Images file

Over the past year, Basmah has had limited but regular contact with relatives through visits and phone calls but it was not revealed publicly what happened to her until April, the confidant said.

In April, more than a year after the princess’ detention, a verified account owned by her issued a series of tweets — which were deleted before being later reposted — imploring King Salman and powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to release her from Al-Hayer prison outside Riyadh.

The tweets, published by members of her team to draw attention to what had happened, said she was being held without charge and that her health was deteriorating.

In the days before those tweets, the princess had been too unwell to speak to her family on the phone, the confidant said, and all contact had been limited to her daughter, who is still also detained with her mother, it is claimed.

“She was in a very bad condition ... she couldn’t get out of bed,” the confidant said, adding that she was struggling to eat.

But then in mid-April, after the first tweets, contact with the daughter also ended, the source said. With no contact, the source said those close to the princess were increasingly concerned she could be seriously ill in jail.

Since being imprisoned last year, she has been denied regular access to a doctor but has been hospitalized on several occasions, according to the confidant.

The specifics of Basmah’s illness remain unclear. The person close to the family said the princess had part of her colon removed in a past operation.

The circumstances around her detention are also murky.

The princess had been due to travel abroad for medical treatment around the time of her arrest and was accused of trying to forge a passport, the source said, adding the charges were later dropped, but she still remains in prison.

Because Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment, NBC News has not been able to verify the status of any potential charges.

For months, Basmah was repeatedly told that she would be let out “next week,” the source added, but each week passed with no release.

It is not the first time that members of Saudi Arabia’s extensive royal family have been detained since the crown prince’s rise to power. In November 2017, hundreds of Saudi royals, billionaires and senior government officials were detained at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, where they were told they had to sign away large chunks of their assets to be released.

It has even been alleged by U.S. officials that the crown prince once put his own mother under house arrest.

"In today's Saudi Arabia, no one is safe from the state repression apparatus, even royal family members who fall out of line,” said Adam Coogle, a deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

“The Saudi leadership has spent a lot of money and effort to market itself internationally as reformist, but this is quickly undermined by the continued arrests of dissidents and flagrant violations of due process of law."