LONDON — No one has skewered the Saudi royal family as gleefully as Ghanem al-Masarir.
In hundreds of videos posted to YouTube — which have now been viewed more than 300 million times — Mr. al-Masarir sits at a desk, usually at his home in North London, offers a jovial greeting in Arabic, then launches into a series of embarrassing Saudi-related stories. The tone is sharply satirical, the delivery a bit hammy.
One of his favorite targets is Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, whom he long ago tagged with a nickname, now widely used by detractors, that translates to “the bear that has gone astray.” As mild as this may sound to Western ears, calling someone a bear in the Middle East is tantamount to calling him fat and ugly, and “astray” in this context means immoral, corrupt, essentially a gangster.
“There are academics in prison in Saudi Arabia for criticizing policy, and they haven’t even mentioned leaders by name,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “So imagine what they think of Ghanem.”
By now, it seems pretty clear.
In October 2018, Mr. al-Masarir says, the British police visited his home to deliver an official warning about a threat to his life. They left him with a “panic button” system, attached through his phone line, that summons the authorities when activated, but they offered no specifics about the source of the threat.
To Mr. al-Masarir, it’s no mystery. Years ago, he says, he was quietly alerted to an apparent Saudi plan to kidnap him, a heads-up that came from an unlikely source: the Saudi intelligence agent later accused of masterminding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post op-ed columnist killed in 2018 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
And the Saudi regime has spent years trying to intimidate Mr. al-Masarir, he says, through cyberattacks on his social media platforms.
A few months before the police showed up at his door, Mr. al-Masarir says, the campaign against him escalated.
His smartphones had turned unaccountably sluggish, and at the behest of a friend — familiar with the side effects of covertly installed spyware — he asked a cybersecurity watchdog group to figure out why.
After examining his smartphones, Citizen Lab, a nonprofit organization based in Toronto, told him that they had been infected with Pegasus, a virus created by an Israeli tech company, NSO Group. It turns smartphones into all-purpose surveillance tools, hoovering up texts and emails, eavesdropping on calls and tracking locations.
Citizen Lab found digital footprints on Mr. al-Masarir’s smartphones leading directly to Saudi Arabia. That discovery, and the police visit, prompted Mr. al-Masarir to take an unusual step: He sued the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, demanding an apology and unspecified damages, for ruining his phones and causing personal distress and anxiety.
“You’re dealing essentially with the mafia,” Mr. al-Masarir said, during a meeting at the offices of Leigh Day, a law firm that is representing him on a “no win, no fee” basis. “Except they have diplomatic passports and a lot of money.”
Saudi officials in the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia did not return calls and emails for comment.
Mr. al-Masarir came to Britain 16 years ago, seeking both an education and a way to denounce his native country from afar. Along the way, he discovered his inner performer and YouTube, an online platform that provided both a steady flow of income and a prominence he had never imagined. A 2018 list of thought leaders in the Arab world compiled by Global Influence ranked him No. 17, far ahead of Mr. Khashoggi.
Today, Mr. al-Masarir finds himself in an odd kind of purgatory. It has been months since he uploaded new “Ghanem Show” videos, which he once recorded three or four times a week. A rotation of repeats now provides the bulk of his income.
But defiance is part of his brand, so he is reluctant to say the Saudis have cowed him. He merely says that, at least for the time being, he has lost interest in filming new monologues.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “I don’t know when, but soon.”
Off camera, Mr. al-Masarir seems nothing like the boisterous character he assumes in his videos.
During an afternoon out this summer, he was stopped repeatedly by fans who recognized him as he walked through Harrods department store, which was filled with shoppers from Saudi Arabia. He graciously posed with families who wanted photographs and nodded to people who shouted compliments.
In private settings, he is soft-spoken, reserved and wary to the point of paranoia. At a cafe that day, he declined to drink the coffee he had ordered, apparently worried that it had been poisoned. He walked with a bottle of pepper spray in his pocket, and when a drunken pair of men careened near him, as he emerged from a Tube station, he looked ready to use it.
“Did you see those guys?” he said, briefly unnerved, as he put the bottle back in his pocket. “I didn’t know what was happening.”
According to his lawsuit, Mr. al-Masarir has much to fear. It was Oct. 31, 2018, when two Metropolitan Police officers visited his home and delivered what is known as an “Osman warning.” It’s a police protocol in which a person is officially informed about a threat to his or her life in cases that lack evidence for an arrest.
A police spokesman said the department does not comment on Osman warnings.
“They didn’t tell me anything about where the threat came from,” Mr. al-Masarir said, as he described the panic button system they had left with him. “They just said that if I pushed the button, they would break down my door, assuming I was under attack.”
The warning occurred a few weeks after the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, which the C.I.A. has concluded was ordered by the crown prince.
Mr. al-Masarir now lives with a sense of personal jeopardy that was inconceivable when he arrived in Britain, in 2003. He left his hometown, Al Kharj, which is about 50 miles south of Riyadh, to study computer science at the University of Portsmouth. He wanted to earn a degree, land a job in the computer field and find ways to denounce the Saudi regime.
Any hopes of remaining a low-profile agitator disappeared in 2004 when he met several times with a man he thought was with the opposition who turned out to work for the Saudis. Later that year, a cousin of Mr. al-Masarir’s, the Saudi diplomat Monhie bin Foyz, was transferred from the consulate of Rome to the embassy in London.
Mr. al-Masarir was leery when Mr. bin Foyz, whom he had never been close to, began inviting him to vacations in countries like Morocco and Egypt. Mr. al-Masarir turned down the invitations.
“The Saudis have a long history of kidnapping people from those countries,” he said. “He called me once from Egypt and said: ‘I’ll book the flights and hotel for you. We’ll hang out.’”
The pair stayed in touch, but his fear that his cousin meant him harm intensified one day in 2007, Mr. al-Masarir said. Mr. bin Foyz had invited him to a cafe in the Lanesborough Hotel in London for a farewell for a fellow diplomat returning to Saudi Arabia.
At one point during this coffee, Mr. bin Foyz went to the bathroom. With his cousin out of earshot, the other diplomat leaned over, stared into Mr. al-Masarir’s eyes and grimly said, “Ghanem, stay where you are.” He added an expletive for emphasis.
The message was plain. Any excursion outside Britain was a very dangerous idea.
“After that,” Mr. al-Masarir said, “there was no way I was going to leave the country.”
Mr. bin Foyz, who now lives in Saudi Arabia, did not return emails asking for comment.
Years later came a shock. The man who delivered the “stay where you are” warning was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb. In November, the Saudi regime tagged Mr. Mutreb as the organizer of the team that had murdered Mr. Khashoggi. It is unlikely that he was among the five people recently sentenced to death by the Saudi government for the killing, because those men have been described as low-level agents and Mr. Mutreb is an aide to the crown prince.
“I can’t explain the change in Mutreb,” Mr. al-Masarir said, still baffled. “When I knew him, he was a human being.”
Mr. al-Masarir remained something of a professional student until his student visa options expired in 2011. He applied for political asylum the next year.
That entitled him to a government stipend of about $50 a week, but lacking work papers, he was unable to land a job. So he created one that didn’t require papers. In 2014, he posted his first video to a channel he originally called “GhanemTube.” It was a scathing attack on the now-deceased King Abdullah for his efforts to censor social media.
“I had never done any acting before,” Mr. al-Masarir said. “I just started.”
His early videos were seen by just a few thousand people and were savaged in the comments section, he presumes by Saudi loyalists. But he gained traction, and his audience multiplied.
In 2016, he posted a video about a cleric’s indignation about women dancing that has since been viewed more than 13 million times. His favorite theme is the widely chronicled corruption of the royal family, which he hammers for spending extravagantly and ruling tyrannically.
“The most important thing for M.B.S. is to take the money of the Saudi people and to empty their pockets,” Mr. al-Masarir says in a video about Mohammed bin Salman and his plan to build a $500 billion “smart city” near the Red Sea. “His Highness buys whatever he wants.”
He has earned as much as $6,000 a month from YouTube. The more famous he became, he said, the more the Saudis worked to undermine him.
The campaign of intimidation described by Mr. al-Masarir overlaps in one chilling way with the plot against Mr. Khashoggi.
After Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, a human-rights activist and friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s, Omar Abdulaziz, said his smartphone had been infected with the Pegasus virus. In a lawsuit against NSO Group, Mr. Abdulaziz said the Saudis had used the virus to plan the killing.
NSO Group denies that accusation and said in a statement that “Omar Abdulaziz’s suit makes a number of false claims about our technology, which is designed to prevent and investigate terror and crime.”
After examining phones owned by Mr. Abdulaziz and Mr. al-Masarir, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, the cybersecurity organization, said the spyware infections had identical elements — both were surreptitiously installed through a fake DHL package delivery link — and led to the same Saudi-controlled server.
Six years after his original application, and a few weeks after the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, Mr. al-Masarir was finally granted asylum. Judge Mark Eldridge wrote in an Oct. 25, 2018, decision that Mr. al-Masarir was entitled to be recognized as a political refugee because he “has a well-founded fear of persecution if he is now returned to Saudi Arabia on the basis of his political opinions.”
Now, Mr. al-Masarir is turning again to the British courts, this time for a reckoning with the Saudis. His lawsuit, which was filed in the High Court of Justice on Nov. 4, relies on what scholars described as an untested legal theory, one that would have to overcome jurisdictional hurdles and broaden the scope of liability for cyberattacks. It is Mr. al-Masarir’s attempt to hold accountable an old enemy in a new arena, having concluded that he has plenty to fear from Saudi Arabia, even if he never sets foot there again.
“The Saudi government wanted to show me, ‘You’re not safe,’” he said, referring to the Pegasus infection and other efforts to silence him. “‘Even in the United Kingdom. We have the upper hand.’”