For weeks, Saudi papers and online chatter have railed against Rahaf al-Qunun, a teenager who last month fled her Saudi family in Kuwait and, detained in Thailand en route to Australia, garnered worldwide attention in a bid for asylum.
As recently as this past week, fake Snapchat accounts allegedly created by Saudi users attempted to spin the narrative that Rahaf was miserable and homesick in Canada.
Meanwhile, Saudi commentator Hani al-Dhaheri promoted Twitter rumors last week that Rahaf would end up “waiting tables in a nightclub for drunkards and gangsters” once Canadians turned on her, and “exposed” a GoFundMe page for her as a fake and a failure — never mind that the only official Rahaf fundraiser exceeded its $10,000 goal.
Why the prolonged focus at home on the actions of a single runaway teenager?
Against the backdrop of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s much-hyped project in social engineering, known as Vision 2030, Rahaf’s flight suggests to some domestic audiences that the expansion of social freedoms is inciting Saudi youth to reckless behavior, while signaling to international audiences that past changes are not even nearly enough.
Rahaf claimed that she had suffered abuse from her family (domestic violence was criminalized only in 2013 and is rarely prosecuted) and had renounced Islam, which is grounds for capital punishment in the kingdom, if proven.
The high profile of Rahaf’s plight – barricading herself in a hotel room in the Bangkok Airport, eventually covered in real time by an ABC reporter from Australia – helped her avoid the fate of similar Saudi women.
Dina Ali Lasloom, for example, was held in the Philippines en route to Australia in 2017 and was sent back to the Kingdom. Even women who make it abroad frequently suffer campaigns of harassment from Saudi officials in an effort to convince them to return home.
In this case, however, Thai authorities refused to extradite Rahaf, and the Canadian government offered to process Rahaf’s asylum application faster than any other. It was a clear diplomatic coup for Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record triggered a diplomatic crisis between the countries in August of last year.
Unsurprisingly, coverage within the Saudi media ecosystem proved vastly different than the story of human rights and women’s empowerment that dominated Western coverage of Rahaf’s case.
Some columnists immediately jumped to the level of conspiracy theorizing – such as Abd al-Razak al-Marjan, writer at Okaz and easily one of the Kingdom’s wildest commentators. He sketches out a view of Rahaf’s asylum status as “fifth-generation warfare” by the Canadian government aimed at stirring up civil strife by inciting the Kingdom’s 900,000 teenage girls to “demand absolute freedoms” and “abandon social mores.”
On Twitter, some Saudi accounts mocked Rahaf and the UNHCR for comparing her situation to “real” refugees, signal-boosted posts by right-wing Canadians who denounced Rahaf’s situation as asylum fraud, and compared Canada’s promotion of human rights to the corrupting influence of jihadist ideologies.
Across the Kingdom, several newspapers, columns and reported articles coalesced around a fairly coherent narrative: Rahaf was, at best, a misguided teenager led astray by the false promises of online feminists; her plight as a family matter cynically manipulated by Canada and the international community to score points against the Kingdom; the administrative gridlock faced by refugees in Canada and high rates of (reported) domestic abuse compared with the increasing empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia.
Egyptian-American journalist and outspoken feminist Mona Eltahawy received particular abuse in both print and social media for supposedly “enabling” Rahaf’s flight by drawing attention to her case.
In one widely-circulated tweet, writer Abdullah al-Ghathami attempted to sidestep controversy by simply expressing sympathy and concern for Rahaf and her family – though this attracted an immediate reply from users calling on al-Ghathami to denounce the “sick, traitorous current” in society that incited Rahaf’s flight.
In some cases, efforts to grapple with Rahaf’s case touched on the third rail of women’s empowerment in the kingdom – the restrictive guardianship laws that still hand much control over women’s personal lives to husbands, fathers, older brothers, or even sons.
Aseel al-Ju‘aid, writing for the slightly more liberal al-Watan, gingerly addressed the issue by suggesting that the Saudi government do away with guardians’ permission for women’s travel (for those 20 or older) – keeping “evil organizations” from using family disputes as a means to attack the Kingdom.
Elsewhere, however, academics focusing on communication and education in the Kingdom doubled down on the importance of family oversight and state control of media in preventing “hostile ideas” from infecting Saudi youth.
“The state has provided the means to develop the individual, yet cannot guide the individual on its own,” noted Dr. Muhammad al-Shanqiti, Dean of the College of Justice at Prince Nayef University.
Given the abysmal press freedoms in the kingdom, domestic coverage is directed by the country’s rulers far more than it is reflective of popular sentiment. Still, Rahaf’s actions, and Canada’s, provoked some controversy even beyond the Saudi media bubble.
Writing for independently-funded news organization Middle East Eye, an outlet often critical of Saudi Arabia, lawyer Faisal Kutty criticized the Canadian government for offering false hope to other refugees that publicizing their plight might gain them admittance.
Former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia likewise cautioned that Canada’s intervention might stoke a conservative backlash in the Kingdom, making it even harder to loosen the country’s guardian laws.
Even among those quietly supportive of Rahaf within the Kingdom, her celebration of arriving in Canada by posting Snapchat photos of bacon no doubt provoked some exasperation.
Ultimately, Rahaf’s flight from Saudi Arabia reveals deep insecurities within the Kingdom about how the transformative Saudi “project” is perceived on the world stage. The country’s leaders know that continued efforts by women to flee the Kingdom are anathema to the idea that the Saudi Arabia of bin Salman, known as MBS, represents a bold new era personal freedoms, regardless of concrete steps made towards gender equality.
News coverage can thus appear desperate to portray Rahaf’s future life in the West as harsh and terrifying compared with a life of ease and opportunity in Saudi Arabia, drowning out any potential for meaningful self-reflection on the status of women in the country.
In the end, however, this suggests that criticisms of Saudi Arabia from abroad are finding their mark. As much as the Kingdom’s apologists like to claim that a conservative Saudi society requires foot-dragging on political and social change, those governing the Kingdom’s public sphere invest great effort in responding to critical coverage of Saudis seeking greater freedom, whether at home or abroad.
The hope is that they invest comparable efforts behind the scenes to avoid similar criticisms in the future.
The journalist who wrote this piece has requested anonymity for fear of retribution by the Saudi government.