Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok. Photo by David McKelvey.
There is a lot of truth in the old saying that it is better to be lucky than smart. From what we know about her, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is both.
Qunun came to the world’s attention because she used 21st century technology to outmaneuver her country’s petro-monarchy and its medieval-rooted treatment of women. At one point barricading herself in an airport hotel to resist deportation, Qunun managed to secure allies worldwide through the internet and, eventually, the global press, creating pressure on Thai authorities to stand up to Saudi Arabia. Orchestrating that groundswell took luck, but also obvious intelligence.
First, Qunun made her break for freedom at the age of 18. Was she just lucky, or did she recognize that this made her old enough to be considered an independent adult by most of the developed nations where she wanted to seek refuge? Either way, she thus avoided the argument that as a minor, she was legally incompetent and had to be returned to her parents regardless of her wishes.
Of course, under Saudi law all women, of any age, are deemed legally incompetent. They require the consent of a male spouse or relative before leaving the country or engaging in many other activities within its borders, and women can be arrested for disobeying their male guardians. Saudi Arabia is the country where, until five minutes ago, women were not even allowed to drive – despite being born in the country that has fueled a large share of the world’s cars for decades.
In addition to reaching adulthood in the eyes of the world, if not her native country, Qunun had the presence of mind to present her case to the Twitterverse. She created a Twitter account on Jan. 5 after she was intercepted in Bangkok, where she had planned to catch a connecting flight to Australia. She used the account to broadcast details of her detention and pleas for support. Her captors, representing either the Kuwaiti airline on which she arrived or the Saudi government (which has denied its involvement), seized her passport and interned her in a transit hotel pending return to her family in Kuwait and on to Saudi Arabia. All of this could only have happened with the cooperation of Thai authorities, who clearly prioritized their relationship with the Gulf states over the fate of a single young woman – until it turned out that the entire world was watching.
Even then, Qunun’s situation could have easily remained precarious had she not publicly declared her renunciation of Islam and her atheism.
Religious beliefs, or the lack thereof, are a matter of personal choice in the West. In Saudi Arabia, such apostasy is punishable by death. Declaring her atheism is the maneuver that allowed Qunun to ultimately put the Thai government in checkmate. Thailand can’t save face with the rest of the world if it knowingly returns this young person to a certain and gruesome fate in her home country. Not, at least, if the Thais don’t want to cripple their own tourism industry by convincing nearly every Western woman and most men that their vacations will be better spent in other Asian capitals than Bangkok and at other beach resorts than Phuket.
Under global, and especially Western, pressure, Thailand has relented. Qunun is waiting under the protection of the U.N. refugee agency and Thai officials while they consider her case. And though Qunun’s father and brother reportedly have arrived in Bangkok, Thai officials have thus far respected her refusal to see them, saying that they will not arrange a family meeting without U.N. permission. Qunun has also said she is once again in possession of her passport.
Qunun was originally fleeing toward Australia, but she has since said she would be just as happy to obtain asylum from Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States. In the wake of the global outcry at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, she is almost certain to receive sanctuary someplace once the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shuffles the requisite amount of paper. Australian Immigration Minister David Coleman is “very likely” to approve a humanitarian visa once the UNHCR process concludes, according to The Australian.
It is certain that many people in Saudi Arabia are currently apoplectic at being outmaneuvered. Kuwaiti authorities are also certainly both embarrassed and worried at their carelessness in letting a Saudi woman board one of their jets to a third country without either sanction or a male minder. The Kuwaitis need only observe what the Riyadh regime is trying to do to Qatar to know that they want to stay on the good side of the Saudis’ mercurial, if not murderous, crown prince.
It took at least a little bit of luck to outsmart and outmaneuver three governments, and arguably more when you consider the public pressure on Western countries to intervene on Qunun’s behalf. But it took a lot of smarts, too. So while being lucky may be better than being smart, being both smart and lucky is best of all.