Analysis

A Runaway Teen Scored a Victory Over Saudi Crown Prince. But She's Not Free Yet

Saudi women are quietly rebelling against the kingdom on Facebook and Twitter. But even on social media, there are people who monitor, threaten, smear or arrest them

File photo: Rahaf al-Qunun arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada, January 12, 2019.
Carlos Osorio/Reuters

How much courage it must have taken for an 18-year-old Saudi woman, the daughter of a mayor, to run away from home because she can no longer bear the physical and emotional abuse she suffered there. Rahaf al-Qunun was evidently blessed with great valor and an equal degree of resourcefulness.

After a dangerous journey to Bangkok, via Kuwait, she managed to mobilize journalists and human rights activists from around the world and eventually was granted asylum in Canada. She thereby not only saved herself (one hopes), but also peeled away yet another layer from the gilding in which the Saudi kingdom wraps itself.

Admittedly, Al-Qunun isn’t Jamal Khashoggi. But she still cannot be certain, even in Canada, that she won’t become the victim of another assassination attempt by the kingdom, whose ruler is just 15 years older than she is and pretends to have a deep understanding of Saudi Arabia’s younger generation.

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Al-Qunun left eight brothers and sisters behind – as well as millions of other Saudi women who would apparently like to follow in her footsteps. But to leave the kingdom, they need a man to accompany them, or some sort of guardian. And anyone who seeks asylum in another country must relinquish any ties with her family.

Thus most Saudi women will have to continue making do with sharing their unhappiness on Facebook and Twitter, which in recent years have become channels for a quiet rebellion in the kingdom. But even on social media, there are people who monitor, threaten, smear or arrest them.

That is what happened to a female Saudi journalist, Reem Sulaiman, who also fled the kingdom and is now seeking asylum in the Netherlands. In an interview with the website Middle East Eye, she said that over the summer, she was summoned for questioning via a writ signed by Saud al-Qahtani, the senior adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is suspected of having planned Khashoggi’s murder.

File photo: Saudi Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Court in Riyadh on January 14, 2019.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

The interrogation included threats, insults and “psychological abuse,” Sulaiman added. And afterward, the security forces raided her home in Riyadh.

Sulaiman, who decided to stop writing after that interrogation, said she’s still not certain what her crime was, but most likely, it’s that she failed to stick to the rules Al-Qahtani dictates to the kingdom’s media. Nevertheless, she insisted, she did not undermine, insult or criticize the government. Today, she has an active Twitter account in the Netherlands with 40,000 followers.

That “accursed” Twitter also did good work for Al-Qunun, who used it to disseminate an eight-second video clip in which a staffer from the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Bangkok can be heard saying, “It would have been better to confiscate her cellphone instead of her passport.” This not only proved that her passport had been confiscated, contrary to the Saudi authorities’ claims, but also showed the degree to which their government fears social media.

Saudi Arabia recently issued a regulation stating that “Creating or disseminating material which contains mockery, disrespect or provocation that could undermine the public order via social media or any other technological means will be considered a crime whose [maximum] sentence is five years in prison and a fine of three million riyals” ($800,000). This draconian directive doesn’t specify what might constitute undermining the public order or what the criteria are for creating a provocation. The interpretation is solely at the government’s discretion.

Buying and selling women

Nevertheless, social media can be a double-edged sword. It can help to spread protests, but it can also spread oppression.

In an interview with a Kurdish website, Iraqi parliamentarian Mohammed Karim Abd al-Hassan said law enforcement agencies in his country have discovered that social networks have become venues for trafficking in women. Not long ago, the Islamic State was the one recruiting and selling women over social media. But today, organized crime rings are trafficking women via Facebook and Twitter.

Abd al-Hassan said you can even find price lists on social media. The price for a teenager or a child ranges from $3,000 to $4,000.

ISIS, despite having been defeated, also continues to traffic women in Syria and Turkey via social media. According to the agency that helps Yazidi women in the city of Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the militant organization still holds more than 3,000 women who were kidnapped during the years of fighting.

File photo: Women chant slogans during a protest near the Syrian-Turkish border in Ras al-Ayn town, Syria, December 20, 2018.
Rodi Said/Reuters

The Iraqi police’s efforts to capture human traffickers have racked up some local successes, after the force learned to impersonate girls to trap the perpetrators. But the problem only seems to be growing.

For their part, Syrian women have found a different use for social media: They use it to promote services in the beauty industry, including plastic surgery, which has become a booming business. On Facebook and Twitter, one can’t help being impressed by the large number of beauty parlors and plastic surgeons offering their services at reasonable prices.

Omar Shaaban, a plastic surgeon in Syria, said there are two main reasons for this trend: “The decline in the number of men, due to the war, is pushing women to compete, and the many hardships women suffered during the war has led them to try to restore their appearance.”

Syria, added Shaaban, is becoming a powerhouse of the beauty industry, both because of the expertise surgeons and cosmeticians have developed and because of the cheap prices they advertise.

Apparently, how the contributions of social media balance out in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Syria and Egypt is something women will have to decide for themselves.