Google, Saudi partnership spells doom for dissidents in the kingdom
The latest Saudi tech project might prove to have immensely dangerous consequences on national dissidents, activists and journalists.
Google is in the process of developing a Cloud computing center in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s state oil giant Aramco, a project that has Google investors standing on the fence given that it might turn into a powerful tool to spy on the people of the kingdom.
The New York Post reported that Google shareholders have expressed discomfort at this strange partnership as the Silicon Valley giant might be offering Saudi authorities a unique tool to spy on – and execute - dissidents, journalists, and activists, essentially serving “sensitive data n a silver plater to Saudi’s top hitmen”.
The case of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi springs to mind, with his phone/fiance’s phone being spied on by authorities using the Israeli Pegasus spyware before being targeted and killed in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul. Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS), the Saudi Crown Prince and the de facto ruler of the kingdom, was repeatedly confirmed to be the man behind the execution order by the CIA, revealing the extent the authorities are willing to go behind opposing voices using tech tools.
The newspaper revealed that Google shareholders will vote in an annual meeting in June on a proposal by SumOfUs, a global consumer group with the mission to reduce the influence of big corporaions. The resolution would require the company to release a detailed report regarding the human rights risks of the project, in addition to the steps it’s taking to diminish such risks.
Despite Google’s staunch attempt at blocking the presentation of the resolution, the Securities and Exchange Commission rejected the move and ordered that the resolution must continue.
Campaign director of SumOfUs Rewan Al-Haddad divulged to the New York Post her concerns that the Saudi authorities "will stop at no end to snuff out anyone who dares challenge their autocratic rule and human rights abuses".
"Google is sidestepping its own human rights standards in favor of growth and profits, and while that’s not necessarily shocking, it puts the lives of activists and dissidents in the region at serious risk.”
A coalition of campaign groups that included Human Rights Watch, ALQST, Access Now, and MENA rights group urged Google in 2021 to put a stop to the plan given the kingdom’s horrendous human rights record.
The statement released by the coalition detailed some of the recent trespasses, saying that "Saudi Arabia’s recent track record of repression of all public dissent, alleged espionage and infiltration of technology platforms, use of cyber-surveillance software to spy on dissidents, and a notorious justice system that flagrantly violates due process rights make [it] an unsafe country to host Google Cloud services."
In addition to the Khashoggi case and the recent shocking public mass execution of 81 individuals, Saudi Arabia never hesitates to use extreme tactics to silence dissent.
In 2015, two former Twitter employees were accused of accessing and relaying the data of more than 6,000 users who oppose Riyadh to an official with close ties to the royal family.
It was subsequently revealed in 2020 by Bloomberg that the spies’ actions led to the incarceration of Saudi aid worker and dissident Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, who ran an anonymous Twitter account criticizing the government policy.
Al-Sadhan was sentenced to 20 years in prison as a result.