Exiled Saudi Dissident Sues McKinsey in U.S. for Outing Him to MBS

An exiled Saudi dissident is suing consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in the U.S. for allegedly outing him to Saudi authorities as a critic of the kingdom. Omar Abdulaziz, a Montreal-based Saudi activist, filed the lawsuit at New York's Supreme Court on Monday.

Abdulaziz, who sought asylum in Canada in 2013, said McKinsey prepared a report in 2016 identifying him as one of three influential social media critics of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the kingdom's de facto ruler.

McKinsey either "furnished" the report to the crown prince or his agents, or "allowed" them to access it, the lawsuit says.

The report, which took the shape of a Powerpoint presentation, allegedly characterized Abdulaziz as a "Saudi influencer with high following" that has "a multitude of negative tweets on topics such as austerity and the royal decrees."

Prior to the report, Abdulaziz said he frequently criticized the kingdom's policies and human rights record on social media while attending university in Canada. While the activist applied for political asylum out of fear for his safety, the only official retaliation he had been aware of was a cancellation of his "salary and scholarship."

After McKinsey's report, however, Abdulaziz said Saudi authorities have "imprisoned and tortured" his family, friends and associates in an effort to pressure him into silence. The lawsuit alleges the dissident's brothers and friends have been "waterboarded and electrocuted," with his younger brother having his teeth pulled out of his mouth. Friends and family who were not imprisoned were reportedly subjected to travel bans.

Saudi agents have also met with Abdulaziz in Canada, demanding he stop criticizing the kingdom and insisting he move back to Saudi Arabia, promising a "bright future" in his home country.

The lawsuit alleges a similar promise was made to Abdulaziz's close friend, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In October 2018, a team of Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi, a palace insider-turned-government critic, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The CIA concluded the crown prince ordered his killing.

Less than two weeks after Khashoggi's murder, the lawsuit alleges, a Saudi hit squad traveled to Canada looking to kill Abdulaziz and another Saudi dissident, a plan that was thwarted by Canadian and U.S. authorities.

The lawsuit stated one of the two Saudi critics named alongside Abdulaziz was imprisoned following the report, while the other "has disappeared—or has been disappeared." "Every single critic" identified in McKinsey's report has reportedly been imprisoned with the exception of Abdulaziz, whose residence in Canada has kept him safe.

McKinsey's report allegedly forced Abdulaziz "into hiding" and to "move from hotel to hotel for four months to avoid being kidnapped or harmed."

"As a direct result of McKinsey's conduct, Plaintiff fears for his life, withdrew
from regular attendance at the university and is unable to seek regular employment," the lawsuit reads.

Abdulaziz said he was unaware of McKinsey's Powerpoint until The New York Times reported on it in 2018. In the piece, the firm admitted to authoring the report and said it was investigating with whom it was shared. McKinsey told the Times it was "horrified by the possibility, however remote, that [the report] could have been misused in any way."

In an email to Newsweek, a McKinsey spokesperson said, "McKinsey was never commissioned by the Saudi Government to produce the report at issue in this lawsuit. The document in question was a basic overview of publicly available social media information.

"It was not prepared for any government entity. Its intended audience was internal. We have no evidence that the document in question was misused.

"Moreover, as Mr. Abdulaziz makes clear in his own filing, he was recognized as an influential voice years before the internal McKinsey document was produced."

The spokesperson said Abdulaziz had filed a prior complaint "containing similar allegations" that was dismissed by a California court.

"This latest claim is also meritless, and we will defend against it," he told Newsweek.

Abdulaziz has called McKinsey's comment "incredibly misleading."

"The only reason the Federal Court in California dismissed the prior lawsuit against McKinsey is because even though McKinsey serves many billionaires in California, it insisted on being sued in New York instead," he told Newsweek.

While Saudi Arabia's human rights record has long been under scrutiny, rights groups say MBS has led a harsh crackdown on dissent since his appointment as heir to the throne in 2017.

Though the crown prince has touted a reform drive in the kingdom, Khashoggi's shocking murder, in addition to the ongoing imprisonment and alleged torture of women's rights activists, have elicited international outrage.

This story was updated on February 10 at 1:25 p.m. ET to include a comment from a McKinsey and Co. spokesperson.

This story was updated on February 22 at 4:16 a.m. ET to include a comment from Omar Abdulaziz and update a comment from a McKinsey and Co. spokesperson.

MBS speaks during a conference in Riyadh
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in a virtual session in the capital Riyadh, on January 28, 2021. A Saudi dissident has filed a lawsuit against McKinsey and Company, alleging the firm outed him as a critic of the kingdom to Saudi authorities. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images