Set us free, plead Saudi princesses

Princesses Sahar and Jawaher say they have been held in a villa since 2001

Two daughters of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia claim that they and their sisters have been held against their will for the past 13 years in the royal palace compound in Jeddah.

Princesses Sahar, 42, and Jawaher, 38, have appealed for help in emails and phone calls to The Sunday Times from the closely guarded villa they say they share.

“We slowly watch each other fading into nothingness,” they wrote in an email.

They said their sister Hala, 39, held alone in another villa, had told them “that her mind is slipping away. . . that the life is being sucked out of her . . .”

A fourth sister, Maha, 41, is also held separately in another villa in the palace compound, they said.

The princesses’ explosive claims open a window onto the usually closed world of the secretive royal family in a country where women’s rights are strictly curtailed.

Their mother, Alanoud Alfayez, who is divorced from the king and lives in London, has asked the UN human rights agency to intervene.

All four are “imprisoned, held against their will, cut off from the world”, Alfayez wrote to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

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“Hala’s condition deteriorates day by day and she is given no medical treatment, although there is a medical centre in the palace.

“She suffers from serious anorexia and psychological problems. After two years without any contact with me, she was able to telephone me and told me she wanted to die.”

The OHCHR said last week it would pass her letter to Rashida Manjoo, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women.

In an email, Sahar and Jawaher described fending for themselves in the villa they have been held in since 2001: “We spend our days struggling to keep afloat. We work around the house. We take care of our pets, we cook, we read.

“We do not have anyone to help, which makes it very hard since it is a big villa. We’ve closed the rest of the house, using only a small space so we can manage it.”

Full details of the allegations made by the sisters and their mother were supplied to the Saudi embassy in London last Tuesday with a request for comments. It has not responded.

Abdullah, who became king in 2005 and is officially aged 89 — although his former wife insists he is in his nineties — is one of the world’s richest men.

He presides over an oil-rich state that has been criticised for restricting the rights of women, but the conditions the princesses describe go well beyond Saudi law.

Sahar said the king, who has at least 38 children by a number of wives, has placed her and her sisters under the control of three of their half-brothers. “In such a patriarchal society — might I say an extremely misogynist and sexist society — women who have no full brother suffer,” Sahar said.

The sisters and their mother described a happy childhood and pampered adolescence, which turned sour as they grew older.

Alfayez was 15 when she married Abdullah, then in his forties. He divorced her after just over a decade, but she and her daughters remained at the heart of the extensive Saudi royal family.

Sahar said there was “animosity” towards them among some princes when, as young women, they complained to their father about poverty in Saudi Arabia. They were also criticised for their party-going lifestyle.

“We lived our lives openly and that is why they hated us,” Sahar said. “Our ‘vices’, or lifestyle, was normal for youngsters.”

Matters came to a head in the late 1990s, the sisters said, after Hala, who had a degree in psychology, complained that people were being “locked up in psychiatric wards for political reasons” in the hospital where she worked.

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