As a country, Saudi Arabia has had its share of bad press, much of it unwarranted or remotely connected to the truth. This observation is not because I am a Saudi, but because over the years of involvement in the media, I have seen enough lying and fibbing by eager journalists bent to portray the Saudis as the mothers of all evils with nasty headlines that are not remotely attached to reality.
One such instance was in a respected media journal in Britain. The journal was the famed Guardian, part of the Guardian Media Group. The headline screamed out to readers: “US activist who escaped Saudi Arabia at risk of being forced to send child back.”
Three days later, a US media organ called the Daily Beast blared the following headlines: “Dramatic Saudi Arabia Getaway Could Cost This American Mom Her Daughter — Terribly Unjust.” The deck to the headlines stated that a US mother risked having her 8-year-old daughter sent back to Saudi Arabia years after their risky breakout from the kingdom.
When an American woman met a Saudi man
Now, to the real root of the story. It is about a young American woman Bethany who travelled some 12 years ago to pursue ‘academic research’ and teach at an all-female university. While in the kingdom, she met a Saudi Ghassan Al Haidari, and soon, they fell in love long enough to realise that their union was inevitable, so they got married. Following her pregnancy, they celebrated the birth of their daughter Zaina.
As most intercultural marriages require an extraordinarily high degree of patience and understanding, something that must have been missing from the dynamics of this couple, things started moving downhill soon after. The relationship that once promised so much was now becoming unbearable to both the players in the marriage, and little Zaina was caught in the middle.
In 2019, when the relationship sunk to an all-time low, the matter reached the Saudi courts for custody of little Zaina. Bethany, who committed what is considered an unpardonable sin by posting on social media photos of herself in bikinis and tight yoga pants before the case reached the courts, lost her custodial rights because the Saudi courts saw such behaviour unfit. “Since the mother is new to Islam and a foreigner in this country and embraces customs and traditions in the way she was raised, we must avoid exposing Zaina to these traditions,” the judge said in his ruling. The court then awarded custody of Zaina to Ghassan Al Haidari’s mother.
Going to America
Not one to give up so easily, Bethany Al Haidari devised a plan to get out of Saudi Arabia with her daughter, first by apologising to her ex and then ‘pretending to be in love with him again’.
In a press statement, Bethany claimed that ‘the fake relationship lasted for months until she could regain his trust and get his permission to leave the kingdom with her daughter for a trip back home to the US.’ Once she returned to the US, Al Haidari filed for emergency custodial rights in Washington state. In 2021, a Washinton state court said that the Saudi court system denied due process to Bethany Al Haidari, who fled that country with her daughter and granted her custody.
The husband, wanting his daughter back and not wanting to give up so easily, went through the legal channels and appealed the court decision, and it is now to the Washington Court of Appeals to merit judgment on the case.
This is a classic case of a marriage gone wrong and a child caught in a tug-of-war between two hostile parents. The situation is compounded by the cultural differences of both parties, and that in a nutshell is the story.
The Human Rights Watch went so far as to claim that Bethany would be put to death if she were to return to Saudi Arabia. What nonsense! Yet, any reader who simply scans the headlines will immediately conjure images of a big bad Saudi wolf out to punish a fair damsel in distress, and he or she could not really be blamed, falling easy to the snares of such untruths.
Now, can anyone really see a link between the headlines and the reality on the ground, or am I just shooting off my mouth?
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena