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It was an offer Ghanem al-Masarir should not have had to consider for long before accepting.

A weekly column with the Washington Post would be great exposure for the Saudi Arabian comedian and satirist, who had made a name for himself in the Arab world but was struggling to break through to Western audiences.

Yet it was exposure he has been avoiding since the last man in the job was murdered 16 months ago by agents of the Saudi government.

“There is a lot to think about. Of course I want the platform, but I risk becoming a second Jamal,” Mr Masarir told the Telegraph, referring to Jamal Khashoggi, the late Saudi journalist and dissident who was killed in his country’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Mr Masariri, 39, became famous for his YouTube channel “The Ghanem Show”, which he hosts from exile in the UK. The show, which criticised the Saudi royal family, earned him a legion of fans but also one powerful enemy – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As the channel’s popularity increased – at one point his videos were receiving tens of millions of views – so did the harassment.

The offer of a column came the same week as reports that Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post and the world’s richest person, had seen his Twitter and other social media accounts allegedly hacked by the crown prince or MBS, himself.

One of few not surprised by the news was Mr Masarir, whose own phone is suspected to have been infiltrated by Saudi hackers he is now suing. 

“What was interesting is that we seem to have all been hacked in the same period of time – mid-late 2018,” said Mr Masarir. “Me, Jeff Bezos, Jamal, Omar (Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist in Canada), and that’s just the people we know about. 

“Something was going on with Saudi at this time, a paranoia,” he told the Telegraph via end-to-end encrypted messaging service Signal – the app of choice for the privacy-conscious as it is virtually impenetrable.

He first suspected something was wrong when his iPhone’s iOS software was not updating, so he sent it off for analysis at Citizen Lab, the cybersecurity organisation at the University of Toronto.

Experts assessed the phones of both Mr Masarir and Mr Abdulaziz and found spyware infections with identical elements — both were surreptitiously installed through a fake DHL package delivery link — and led to the same Saudi-controlled server.

“Absolutely nobody in Saudi would do such a thing without the approval of MBS,” said Mr Masarir, suggesting he believed the hacks had been ordered at the very top.

The Saudi government has denied hacking Mr Masarir’s phone.

“I’m not Bezos, they didn’t blackmail me. I don’t have anything interesting enough,” he jokes. “What they want is to know everything about you: who you are contacting, what you are doing and saying. It gives them complete access to your private life in.”

Mr Masarir, who has been living under police protection in north London since Mr Khashoggi’s assassination, last month filed a lawsuit against the Saudi government at the High Court in London, in an extremely rare case against the ultra-conservative kingdom.

He wants an apology and unspecified damages. Saudi has three months to respond to his lawyers before they take the next step.

There are few legal precedents and should the case reach court it will shine an uncomfortable spotlight on Riyadh’s alleged campaign of harassment of its critics. 

Not only that, it could broaden the scope of liability for cyber attacks.

“He (MBS) has been running a campaign to silence critics and he has been successful,” Mr Masarir said. “For years it has seemed like the regime could not be touched by the legal system but finally I have the opportunity to hold them to account.”

Despite the reforms taking place under MBS, including women’s right to drive, the loosening of male guardianship restrictions and the opening up to tourism, he claims the kingdom has never been more repressive.

“I speak to people inside Saudi and they tell me ‘we are like North Korea,’” he said. “The only difference is we have money and a good relationship with America and the West.”

Mr Masarir, who has long been vocal of his government, arrived in the UK in 2003 to take up a place on the University of Portsmouth’s computer science course. When his student visa ran out he applied for political asylum in 2012, though it would not be granted until 2018: a delay, he claims, that was down to Saudi pressure on the British government.

He has taken a break from filming “The Ghanem Show” but still worries about his safety in the UK, pointing to his host country’s close relationship with the kingdom.

The two are important trade partners. The British government even licensed the sale of £600 million worth of military equipment to Saudi six months after the murder of Mr Khashoggi. 

The hacking attempts on Mr Masarir have not stopped either. Just minutes before our interview he received prompts from Google to change his email passwords, suggesting someone was trying to access his accounts.

He also continues to be targeted by an army of pro-Saudi government “bots” on Twitter, which send him hundreds of messages a day intended to intimidate him.

But Mr Masarir is determined to not let them succeed, publishing his first op-ed in the Washington Post last week. “(At first) I kept my opposition to the Saudi regime quiet, but as time passed I felt the need to speak up for those who still suffered,” he told the Post’s readers.

“It felt good to speak out,” he said of the column this week, “and I’ve missed writing, but I don’t know yet whether it can be a regular gig.”



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