As China deepens relations with Saudi Arabia in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Uighur diaspora finds itself in the crosshairs. Riyadh is preparing to deport two Uighurs back to China’s western province of Xinjiang, where they will almost certainly be detained for “re-education” in its vast network of concentration camps for the region’s Turkic inhabitants. Uighurs in Xinjiang face human rights violations ranging from arbitrary detention and torture to sexual assault and forced sterilization.
Saudi Arabia, a key ally of China in the Arab world, has shown support for Beijing’s crackdown on Uighur culture in the past. During a 2019 visit to China, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, told his hosts: “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.” Saudi Arabia further endorsed China’s Xinjiang policies in two joint letters to the United Nations in 2019 and 2020.
But Arab states are not only lending rhetorical support to China, they are also actively assisting Beijing in its global campaign of abuse and reprisals against Uighurs. At least six governments in the Arab world—Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the UAE—have detained or extradited Uighurs at China’s behest. According to our dataset at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, around 292 Uighurs have been detained or deported from Arab states at China’s behest since 2002.
The majority of these occurred in recent years. China’s repressive practices against the Uighur diaspora have expanded dramatically since Chinese President Xi Jinping unleashed his “people’s war on terror” in 2014. At least 1,327 individuals have been detained or rendered from 20 countries worldwide since then, according to our findings. The majority of these are from Muslim-majority countries. Today, links to the Arab world can result in immediate imprisonment for Uighurs, with algorithmic systems of surveillance flagging any individuals with ties to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or any of the other 26 countries blacklisted by Chinese police, for arrest.
To pursue Uighurs, China has abused international organizations such as Interpol, the world police agency, as well as bilateral extradition treaties. The recent case of Idris Hasan (also known as Aishan Yideresi), who was detained in Morocco in July 2021, is revealing. Hasan, a computer engineer, worked for a number of Uighur human rights organizations in Turkey before he fled to Morocco after Turkish authorities detained him. He was arrested on July 19 at Casablanca Airport and sent to a prison near Tiflet after China issued an Interpol Red Notice on false charges of terrorism against the Uighur activist. Interpol suspended the Red Notice on August 2021, but Moroccan courts proceeded to try Hasan according to an extradition treaty signed with China in 2016—part of a strategic partnership agreement between the two countries that included economic and financial investments. On December 16, 2021, the Court of Cassation in Morocco ordered his extradition but he remained in detention at the time of publication.
Hasan’s case is not the first or even most blatant example of China’s powerful reach in the Arab world. In July 2017, Egyptian police rounded up over 200 Uighur residents from their homes, restaurants, mosques, and even airports as they tried to flee the country. Most were students at al-Azhar University, an Islamic university that has stood in Cairo for over a thousand years. A large number were taken to Tora, the notorious “Scorpion Prison,” where Egyptian political prisoners are usually sent. Our interviews with detainees reveal that Chinese intelligence officers interrogated Uighurs within these facilities alongside their Egyptian counterparts.
According to our findings in the report “Beyond Silence: Collaboration Between Arab States and China in the Transnational Repression of Uyghurs,” published with the Oxus Society and Uighur Human Rights Project, at least 76 of these detained Uighurs were deported to China. In interviews with the authors, Uighurs who fled the crackdown in Egypt thought al-Azhar University would protect them, but were left “astonished” when police came for them. At least two Uighur students have been reported dead in police custody on their return to China.
Even the hajj, the pilgrimage required of all practicing Muslims, is no longer safe. The journey to the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina for the Muslim faithful has become a snare to catch Uighurs from all over the world. Osman Ahmad Tohti, a Uighur with legal residency in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, was detained in 2018 while conducting the hajj and forcibly repatriated to China. He has not been heard from since. China’s intelligence services have also used the pilgrimage to bait Uighurs in safe European jurisdictions. Norway-based Uighur Omer Rozi said his mother was forcibly taken on the hajj by Chinese police and was forced to call Omer three times per day, urging him to join her.
Transnational technological linkages between Beijing and the Arab world have potentially dire consequences for Uighurs back in China. In 2019, a Uighur was reportedly stopped at mainland China’s border with Hong Kong and interrogated for three days because someone on his WeChat contact list had “checked in” at Mecca. In the past, Uighurs conducting the hajj have been given state-issued tracking devices in the form of “smartcards” attached to lanyards around their necks.
The United Arab Emirates, which enjoys one of the strongest relationships with China in the Arab world, has emerged as a regional intelligence hub for China’s security services. In August 2021, Jasur Abibula, a Netherlands-based Uighur and former husband of Asiye Abdulahed—who rose to prominence for leaking the “China Cables” about the mass incarceration program in Xinjiang—said he was lured to Dubai where he met with two Chinese intelligence officers. The agents reportedly handed him a USB and instructed him to insert it into his ex-wife’s computer to infect it with spyware. Beijing has been using its leverage over the UAE to collect biometric data and other forms of ID from its Uighur residents. When Ahmad Talip was detained in the UAE in 2018, he told his wife Amannisa Abdullah that the Dubai police collected a blood sample at the request of the Chinese government. Shortly after Amannisa received the message, Talip disappeared. She was told he was deported to China and imprisoned. The collection of biometric data matches conversations I have conducted with Uighurs in the UAE who say they have received WeChat messages from Chinese officials requesting photographs and other identifying documents. Pressure is often applied to their families in Xinjiang to ensure their compliance.
If the Biden administration wants to take China to task on Xinjiang, it must use its leverage to unite its partners in the Arab world behind this mission. The U.S. has considerable authority to punish security officials engaged in illicit refoulement through its Magnitsky Act for targeted sanctions. As the long arm of China’s surveillance state reaches Uighurs residing in like-minded autocracies, it is more crucial than ever before that the U.S. offer safe haven to this oppressed group by granting Uighur refugees protected status and raising refugee quotas.
China’s campaign of repression against the Uighurs is not confined to Xinjiang. The efforts of the U.S. to prevent a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis should not stop there either.
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