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A turning point for Saudi human rights?

January 10, 2019

Saudi 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has received a wave of international solidarity in her bid for asylum. Will her struggle for human rights help to enact change within the Gulf dictatorship?

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunan
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/Human Rights Watch/Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun can breathe a sigh of relief: The United Nations has recognized the young Saudi woman, who fled her family and country to escape a forced marriage, as a refugee. The Australian government said Wednesday it was considering granting her refugee resettlement following a referral from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Though her case is far from settled, al-Qunun had barely received that news and was already using her voice to advocate for solidarity in the case of Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi, who was detained in November in Thailand while on his honeymoon. Bahrain is pressuring Thai authorities to extradite him, as he was convicted in absentia to 10 years' imprisonment during a sham trial. Now a recognized refugee and permanent resident of Australia, the athlete says he was tortured by Bahraini authorities after having participated in an Arab Spring pro-democracy rally, and his life will be in danger if he returns to his homeland.

Global solidarity

Al-Qunun is receiving a lot of support from across the globe. She has attracted some 129,000 followers on Twitter, for instance. Many of them, particularly young Arab women, celebrate her success and identify with her.

Al-Qunun's plight is one that gives hope, journalist Sarah Aziza told DW, explaining that human rights violations continue to be a problem In Saudi Arabia. "This time many activists, and people in the West, were prepared to react, to criticize the Saudi government," she said. "It is also important to note that some of the tweets and voiced demands on the [Saudi] government were in English. This, too, gave the mobilization more traction. It should be added that not only the citizens of the West but also those of Saudi Arabia, are very suspicious of the government in Riyadh."

Saudi government feeling international pressure

Though the world's eyes have not stopped conservative Muslims from criticizing al-Qunun on social media, the Saudi government itself seems to be rethinking its previous behavior, believes Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.

Read more: Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun waits in Thailand on asylum bid

"[The Saudi government] almost seemed to be embarrassed. In earlier cases, the government expressed itself much more decisively. It had ... regularly stated that it was unacceptable for young women to travel unaccompanied," he said. "In the meantime, however, there is now an awareness that they are being closely observed — and criticized — by the media worldwide."

Al-Qunun's quest for asylum is just the latest high-profile human rights issue to do damage to Saudi Arabia's global reputation. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year drew widespread international condemnation.

Jamal Khashoggi protest
Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 last yearImage: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Akgul

Saudi government wants to 'improve image'

"The murder [of Khashoggi] caused the government considerable embarrassment," Adubisi said. "It now wants to improve its international image."

The al-Qunun case could also influence other human rights activists, believes Aziza. "It is true that major players such as the president of the United States usually do not comment on such issues," she said. "But a critical mass of writers, activists, and ordinary people keeps the up pressure, and that gives cause for hope."

Read more: Champion of free speech: Jamal Khashoggi

Al-Qunun has escaped the draconian punishments that she probably would have been threatened with at home. It remains to be seen, however, whether her plight will benefit human rights activists sitting in Saudi prisons, some of whom have expressed themselves more politically and fundamentally criticized the political system, such as blogger and author Raif Badawi.

Adubisi says he hopes that the al-Qunun case could also be helpful for them: "There's one thing it requires, though: sufficiently heavy pressure."

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East