Saudi Arabia’s juggling act on homosexuality
As a gay diplomat seeks US asylum, Saudi Arabia seems torn between wanting a civilised image and appeasing traditionalists
Saudi Arabia may be a miserable place to live, but it’s not very often that a Saudi diplomat seeks refuge in the United States. The last time it happened was in 1994.
At the weekend, though, it emerged that Ali Ahmad Asseri, first secretary of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, has applied for asylum in the US on the grounds that he is gay. He says his employers have refused to renew his diplomatic passport – effectively terminating his job – after finding out about his sexuality. He adds they were also unhappy about his friendship with a Jewish woman.
The Saudis are reportedly demanding his return to the kingdom, where Asseri fears he would be killed “in broad daylight”.
The conservative American Thinker website is rather excited about this and suggests it “will pose a real problem for the Obama administration, which loves to cozy up to (and bow before) Saudi power” – though I doubt that it will.
If American officials accept Asseri’s story he is almost certain to be granted asylum. The Saudis may grumble a bit about that for the sake of appearances, but letting him stay in the US would spare them the embarrassing and potentially damaging question of what to do about him if he returned home.
Unless I’m very much mistaken, Asseri is the first Saudi ever to publicly declare himself gay. So, in a way, this is uncharted territory – but territory where the authorities in Riyadh would probably rather not go. If he went home they would either have to charge him or provide him with lifelong protection – and no matter which course they chose, it would anger someone.
As in some other recent cases (such as the TV fortuneteller accused of sorcery who was sentenced to death and then apparently reprieved) they are torn between their desire to present a civilised image to the outside world and their need to appease religious traditionalists on the home front.
Saudi Arabia is one of four Arab countries where homosexual acts are not only illegal but punishable by execution. The others are Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen; the same applies in non-Arab Iran, just across the Gulf from Saudi Arabia.
In contrast to Iran, though, there have been no “gay” executions reported in Saudi Arabia since 2002 when three men from Abha were beheaded. There have, however, been various raids on gay parties and men have been arrested for “behaving like women” but the usual penalties are flogging and imprisonment – which tend to attract less media attention than executions.
Despite its officially tough stance against homosexuality, the Saudi regime – like most of the other Arab governments – does not regard the issue as important enough to risk jeopardising its international relations, so it will probably be quietly grateful to the US if Asseri stays in Los Angeles. But it can’t keep up its juggling act for ever, and at some point it will have to decide where it really stands.