MbS The Reformer? Saudi App Allows Men To Track, Stop Women From Running Away

  • Saudi law says every woman must have a male guardian, who has enormous power over her life and travel.
  • The Saudi government has digitized parts of the guardian system, letting Saudi men manage women's lives online.
  • INSIDER spoke with Shahad al-Mohaimeed, a refugee who navigated this system to flee her family in 2017.
  • Guardians can specify when and from which airports women can travel, effectively trapping them in Saudi Arabia.
  • The system includes a text-messaging system that alerts men when women use their passports. They are often able to catch them as a result.
  • The system has existed for years, but it has come under renewed scrutiny after the high-profile asylum claim of the Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed.

INSIDER also spoke with activists and women's-rights experts to highlight the full extent of the system.

Shahad al-Mohaimeed got up at midnight to leave her hotel room overlooking the blue water of Trabzon, a Turkish vacation town on the Black Sea. Her family picked the hilly, historic port because it offered a seaside break, but within an Islamic society.

Creeping barefoot out of the bedroom, al-Mohaimeed gathered her family's credit cards, keys, passports, and, crucially, their phones. This would slow them down, she thought, when they tried to follow her. Her escape had taken a year of planning.....

As well as physical restrictions and social pressure, al-Mohaimeed had to navigate a sophisticated online system to escape. Her father's phone — the one she stole that night in Trabzon — would have given him access to a Saudi government system called "Absher."

The Absher system — little-discussed in Western media — contains a log of women in Saudi Arabia and the means to bar them from travel or catch them trying to leave without permission....

Vitally, Saudi men can also use this site to specify when and where women are allowed to fly out of the country and grant or revoke travel permission with a few clicks, rendering specific airports or destinations off-limits.

Men can also enable an automatic SMS feature, which texts them when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in.

The reason al-Mohaimeed waited for the vacation in Turkey is that she would have little chance of escaping from within Saudi Arabia, where borders are integrated with the Absher alert system.

Any attempt to leave would be blocked as soon as her passport was checked at an airport. Even if she were to make it out, she would leave a digital trail making her easy to find.....