The case of Rahaf al-Qunun, a Saudi teen who sought asylum abroad, has been widely covered by international media outlets and regional Arab ones alike.
After landing in Canada as a refugee, al-Qunun gave ABC News Australia an exclusive one-on-one interview. Al Arabiya aired the entire footage unedited, in addition to having covered the story from the beginning when it first started in Bangkok, Thailand.
But critics called out the media coverage of Al Arabiya and local Saudi television channels by saying that the story of a local family dispute did not warrant such intense global media attention.
Dr. Maha Al Muneef, Executive Director of Saudi Arabia’s National Family Safety Program, said: “The case of Rahaf is a family issue. It involves a minor who is young and confused. It must be resolved between a father and his daughter by the means possible. We should not turn it into a state issue.”
Sarah Dundarawy, a Saudi national and the current host of ‘Tafa’olkum’, a show on Al Arabiya that focuses on trending social media topics, said there was no doubt there was a need to cover al-Qunun’s case.
“At our show, we talk about whatever people are talking, including all the issues they are discussing and what is trending online. We wanted people to hear Rahaf’s point of view and the other point of view as well,” Dundarawy told Al Arabiya English. “That’s why for example we aired the entire interview in full, unedited, and translated the presenter’s questions and included the tweets explaining why she allegedly faced violence.”
The online debate went further when Al Arabiya also covered a similar case from Kuwait after a former law professor, Dr. Fatima al-Matar, said she fled the country with her daughter to the United States seeking asylum after one of her tweets was deemed blasphemous.
Al Arabiya’s ‘Tafa’olkum’ covered the story as it drew parallels to al-Qunun and brought in a Kuwaiti lawyer to debate the case’s merits.
“I personally think this woman only sent out that tweet in order to seek political asylum. She has a prior record of insulting His Highness the Emir but was still pardoned and faced no jail time. This all points to her simply seeking political asylum and fame at the same time,” the lawyer Fahad al-Haddad told Al Arabiya.
“I disagree with media channels who are covering the cases of Rahaf al-Qunun and Fatima al-Matar. These women just want the attention unfortunately,” he added.
Setting a ‘dangerous precedent’
With al-Qunun now settling in Toronto as a refugee, one of Canada’s own diplomats said Ottawa’s “privileging of Qunun’s case could set a dangerous precedent.”
“What happens the next time a teenage girl or adult woman from Saudi Arabia flees her family and declares herself to no longer be a Muslim, does that mean automatic sanctuary?” David Chatterson, Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009-2011, told CBC News.
Saudi Arabia froze further trade deals with Canada in August last year and expelled the Canadian ambassador following a public call by Ottawa’s embassy in Riyadh to release Saudi nationals. The kingdom also announced it was ending state-backed educational and medical programs in Canada.
Dennis Horak, who was Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia until last year, told CBC News that he “would hate to see us use this to keep trotting her [Rahaf al-Qunun] out and have meetings with the Prime Minister... various photo-ops [and] things like that become the mallet with which we bash Saudi Arabia.”
The controversy regarding Canada granting asylum came under further scrutiny by observers, with some calling out the “double-standards” on the speed of their offer and the Western media’s focusing on al-Qunun, instead of other refugees fleeing real conflicts and wars.
“The messaging that this sends out to refugees internationally is not a good one. The way that this has been covered since implies that some refugees are more deserving than others,” H. A. Hellyer, a nonresident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, tweeted.
The messaging that this sends out to refugees internationally is not a good one. The way that this has been covered since implies that some refugees are more deserving than others. https://t.co/0T8yAKlnUy— Dr H.A. Hellyer (@hahellyer) January 17, 2019
To air or not to air?
Arab and Saudi critics are still debating online whether it is appropriate for media channels to “air their dirty laundry” and asked whether social issues like family disputes deserve so much air time.
“The subject is trivial. Airing the interview is not keeping pace with the global media. The story is that of a teenager who has been duped and there was no need to air her interview and hurt her family’s feelings. Al Arabiya, you have wronged,” one Twitter user said.
Al Arabiya’s Dundarawy said that as a Saudi woman, she has been following foreign media coverage of al-Qunun’s story and found that she disagreed with many points.
“There is a lot of misconceptions and stories about how we Saudi women are treated. Stories like Rahaf’s are being treated like they are the norm when there are many other stories which are positive and women are living normally,” Dundarawy said.
The Saudi presenter then argued that her show on Al Arabiya was necessary to cover social issues in a broader, more accurate light.
“Of course, we should cover the story since people are already talking about it. Why should we pretend that it's not happening? People are interested and honestly this is reflected in the views in terms of the replies and tweets, so that's why we took an interest,” she said.
Muna AbuSulayman, a prominent Saudi talk show host, agreed but went further in saying that cases such as al-Qunun open up discussions among Saudi society about the age of majority, and raising questions regarding the specific age a woman should be treated as an adult.
“These are questions that can only be asked by society, the answers cannot come from outside,” she told Al Arabiya English.SHOW MORE