By now you’ve probably heard about the story of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi teenager who fled from her family and is seeking refugee status in Australia.
While transiting in Bangkok, she was interdicted by a Saudi diplomat, who snatched her passport and essentially attempted to kidnap her, vowing to return to her family. Under Saudi law, she has no right to travel without a male guardian. She had denounced Islam and escaped an arranged marriage she was dreading.
But this wasn’t The Kingdom, this was Thailand. And for a couple days, it looked like Thailand would capitulate to the Saudis and deport her. But Rahaf bravely barricaded herself in a transit hotel room and Thailand now says she will be allowed to continue to Australia if her asylum petition is approved. In the meantime, she will remain in Thailand while her claim is evaluated.
It takes a lot of gall to try to kidnap someone on foreign soil, doesn’t it? Perhaps this should not be a surprise from a Kingdom emboldened to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
But my main issue is not with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but with Thailand. How could it let this happen in the first place? How could a sovereign nation allow a foreign agent to so aggressively and openly operate on its soil? And how could Thailand initially just casually dismiss the matter as a family dispute?
All this makes me more hesitant to fly to Thailand than to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi official should never have been allowed to harass Rahaf. With few exceptions, Saudi law does not extended beyond the Kingdom’s borders. If a nation cannot protect transit passengers and tourists, it makes me much less likely to visit than an authoritarian nation who may not respect civil liberties but keeps visitors safe. I felt very safe when I visited Saudi Arabia.
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Freedom of conscience is a pillar of what it means to a human. It takes a certain amount of courage to flee a dangerous situation and I do not doubt that Rahaf feels genuine concern for her safety. Under Saudi law, she can be punished not just for her act of independent travel but for disgracing the Kingdom, which she has certainly done by shedding light on her plight. Thailand eventually did the right thing, but its initial reaction gives me grave concern.
I’m not so afraid that I would personally hesitate to travel to either nation. But what happened in Thailand does make me feel quite uneasy from the perspective of a traveler.
How about you? Do you feel a certain unease visiting a nation that turns the other way as to how transit passengers are treated?