The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has spent by conservative estimates tens of millions of dollars on western PR firms to shore up its global image. The amount of money allocated for such activity could possibly run into a lot more. While other countries adopt similar strategies, albeit on a much smaller scale, the kingdom in particular finds itself the target of negative media coverage on several fronts.
Perhaps the biggest blemish on the country’s reputation has been the lingering allegation that 15 of the 19 alleged terrorists who participated in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 were Saudis. That singular act has in many ways changed the world and how Muslims and Saudis in particular have been viewed the world over.
The western media was relentless in its attacks on the country and editorial after editorial was published commenting on the ‘evils’ of the kingdom. From public beheadings to the suppression of women’s rights; from maltreatment of migrant workers to confinement of social activists; from charges of promoting extremism in schools to the squandering of public funds, all such purported incidents immediately commanded front page headlines. The kingdom’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Hai’a) was acutely followed by the global media and their transgressions against the country’s residents splashed on news reports. The commission had come to be disliked by a large segment of the people for the excesses of some of its members and that displeasure was transformed into worthwhile news reporting. The kingdom was also accused of ‘exporting terrorism’ through the funding of religious schools or opening up mosques in several countries
Investing so much money into polishing up its image, the kingdom saw some incremental improvement as the late King Abdullah’s singular initiative to empower women, to free up the press, to modernise the education system, to cater to the needs of the citizens and to improve the judicial process among other achievements were all met favourably by the western media. They saw a country on the move towards a better path and slowly but surely criticism had somehow softened.
But along came Dina Ali Lasloom and all that good press evaporated overnight. Dina, a 24-year-old Saudi female travelling to Australia was held in her stopover in Manila and forced back against her will to the country. She had landed in Manila in the early hours of last Monday morning, on a routine layover en route to Sydney. Reports suggest that she was attempting to flee from her “abusive” family and seek asylum in Australia after having obtained a tourist visa from the Australian Embassy in Kuwait.
Upon her arrival in Manila, Dina claimed her passport, boarding pass and travel documents were confiscated by Philippines Airlines staff and she was told that “someone important” had instructed them not to allow her to board her continuing flight to Sydney. In a video sent to a Saudi activist by Dina from Manila and posted online, she claimed, “They took me and locked me up for 13 hours, just because I’m a Saudi woman, with the cooperation of the Saudi embassy. If my family come, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead. Please help me. The Philippines government and Saudi are violating human rights and international law. I am kept here as a criminal, I can’t do anything, I can’t go out.”
A Canadian woman, Meagan Khan, transiting through Manila on April 10, said Lasloom approached her at 11am to ask if she could borrow her cell phone. Lasloom identified herself as a Saudi woman living in Kuwait who intended to flee to Australia to escape a forced marriage and that airport officials had confiscated her passport and boarding pass for a scheduled 11.15am flight to Sydney.Khan said that a distressed Dina revealed to her that “her family, her uncles, are very strict, and abusive to her, so she ran away. She told me she was a teacher, she said ‘they forced me to become a teacher or be a slave’. She is not allowed to leave the house without a male guardian at all.”
An airline security official said he saw bruises on her arms that she said were the result of a beating by her uncles. The security official said that a little later he saw two airline security officials and three apparently Middle Eastern men enter the hotel and go to her room, which he said was near the lobby. He said he heard her screaming and begging for help from her room, after which he saw them carry her out with duct tape on her mouth, feet, and hands. He said she was still struggling to break free when he saw them put her in a wheelchair and take her out of the hotel.
Several passengers on the flight to the Saudi capital of Riyadh said they had seen a woman being carried onto the plane screaming. One woman told Reuters, “I heard a lady screaming from upstairs. Then I saw two or three men carrying her. They weren’t Filipino. They looked Arab.”
The Saudi embassy in the Philippines issued a statement a day later saying that Lasloom’s return was a “family matter.”
It may have well been a ‘family matter’, but it did not sit well with global media or human rights organisations who once again resumed ferocious attacks on Saudi Arabia’s application of human rights. One Saudi female and one incident, and all that previously generated goodwill went down the toilet.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/@talmaeena.