On the morning of August 18, 2017, Rana deboarded her Saudia Airlines flight in Munich, Germany, bleary-eyed and clutching a small leather bag. Her husband, a near-stranger whom she had married two days earlier, in Riyadh, with the stroke of her father’s pen, marched ahead of her. As the couple approached passport control, he reluctantly handed Rana her passport, which he had taken before landing. Rana stole a glance inside to insure that the note she had scribbled in the airplane’s bathroom was still tucked between the newly minted pages. The line crawled forward. Rana’s heart pounded. A German officer processed her husband’s paperwork, then waved Rana over. Rana slid her documents to the official on the other side of the glass window. Inside, a short plea, written in English, read, “i want to apply for asylum.” And then, in shaky German, “mein Mann weiß nicht”—“my husband doesn’t know.”
The moment had been a lifetime in the making. Rana’s earliest memories were dominated by the violent fits of her father, whose abuse once drove her mother to run away, with Rana, then just a toddler, in tow. The experience served as an early lesson on Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal norms. Rana’s mother, under pressure from her family, abandoned her hopes for a divorce and returned to her husband. Later, she explained her reasoning to Rana: it is better to suffer abuse inside a respectable marriage, she said, than to live as a woman in disgrace.
At school, Rana chafed under long hours of religious instruction, which taught her to fear hellfire and respect men as fundamentally superior. At Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, a brief phase of online activism landed her at the disciplinary office, where the administration threatened police action. Later, while trying to help a friend suffering from domestic violence, Rana was rebuffed by authorities for attempting to file a police report. After college, Rana’s hopes for a career as an English translator were repeatedly blocked by her father, who considered the prospect shameful. She was eventually able to start a small phone-repair business with several female friends, but she was soon confronted by her worst nightmare: her parents arranged for her marriage. On their first meeting, her young suitor informed her that he’d expect to start having children immediately, and that she would devote herself to child-rearing. “I saw him, and I saw the end of my life,” she told me.
Rana, who was twenty-four at the time, was still unwilling to surrender. “I realized there would be no future for me in Saudi Arabia,” she recalled. “I had no choice but to find a way out.” In this, she made her new husband an unwitting accomplice: he agreed to take her on a honeymoon, giving her an alibi to obtain a passport and travel documents—something no Saudi woman can do without the permission of her wali, or male guardian. He’d even been accommodating when she suggested that they travel to Germany, which she’d identified, after extensive research, as the best asylum destination in Europe.
Moments after handing over her passport in Munich—on her first day outside of her native country—Rana was escorted away from her husband, who quickly grew hysterical. For the next fourteen hours, she was shuttled between various holding facilities, each packed with migrants from around the world, before being assigned a room in a nearby halfway house. Collapsing into bed that night, numb with exhaustion and relief, her mind circled a single thought. “I had left behind a life that others chose for me, and, finally, I was choosing for myself,” she told me. “I thought, This choice is freedom.”
But, even as Rana slipped beyond the stifling grip of her husband and father, she unwittingly placed herself in the crosshairs of a new, more formidable foe. Back home, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince popularly known as M.B.S., had come to dominate the Saudi royal court and was working tirelessly to project an image of himself as a liberal reformer. The young monarch had spent billions on an international P.R. campaign, touting a message of a Saudi renaissance, in which his subjects would enjoy unprecedented freedom and prosperity. This new Saudi Arabia would, in turn, become an “investment powerhouse” for global capital and a respected peer among the world’s most powerful economies. The crown prince frequently played up themes of women’s empowerment as evidence of his country’s liberal awakening, promising to increase the female workforce to thirty per cent by 2030 and to allow women to drive for the first time in the country’s history.
The crown prince’s ambitious agenda won him acclaim from many in the West, who hailed him as the harbinger of a more moderate, even democratic, Arabian Gulf. However, at home, M.B.S. was seizing power through blatantly autocratic means. By the end of 2017, about a year before the murder of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, M.B.S. had locked up hundreds of people, including civilians and members of the royal family, in an effort to clamp down on opposition, both real and imagined. At the same time, the crown prince was overseeing a quiet campaign of suppression of Saudis abroad, working through Embassies and back channels to silence them through blackmail, intimidation, and forced repatriation. These efforts were not reserved for vocal dissidents like Khashoggi, who fled Saudi Arabia around the same time that Rana did. Increasingly, the Saudi government was widening its net of censorship and harassment to include private Saudi citizens who possessed little or no political profile.
The reason appeared to be a matter of image control: though Rana had refrained from publicizing her critical opinions of the government, she still represented a troubling demographic for M.B.S. The number of Saudi asylum seekers had increased dramatically since the beginning of the crown prince’s rise—from five hundred and seventy-five cases, in 2015, the year he emerged on the political scene, to more than twelve hundred, in 2017. (This was in addition to a swelling number of Saudis who, like Khashoggi, opted for self-exile under separate visa processes.) The implicit critique of this exodus was enough to stoke the ire of the crown prince. Rana would soon learn what the case of Khashoggi later taught the world: the young monarch’s obsessive need to control his reputation heeded no national boundaries. [Continue reading…]