The Australian government loves being in lockstep with Washington — parroting something close to an American line on everything from Israel to climate change. But, now and then, there’s a limit. At the moment, that limit has a name: Saudi Arabia.
First it was the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which Australia condemned with the forthright language actively avoided by the Trump administration.
This week it’s the case of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who claims her family threatened to kill her after she renounced Islam.
Alqunun also claims to have been beaten by her brother, forced to pray and wear a hijab, and to be terrified of her father.
The young woman was travelling to Australia, with the intention of claiming asylum, when she was confronted by Saudi officials while in transit in Thailand. According to Alqunun, the officials seized her passport and tried to force her return to the kingdom. The teenager then barricaded herself in her hotel room and opened a Twitter account in order to appeal for help.
“I’m afraid, my family WILL kill me,” she tweeted.
She also recorded a video message that was given to Australia’s national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corp., to be aired in the event she disappears.
After a lengthy standoff involving both Thai and Saudi officials, Alqunun’s passport was returned early this week and her claim for protection is being assessed by the U.N. refugee agency.
Australia has now signaled that it will offer her protection if her refugee status is affirmed, saying it had “serious concerns” about the case and promising that her appeal for asylum would be “carefully considered.”
Some news outlets are also reporting that the immigration minister, David Coleman, is “very likely” to grant her asylum.
For some Australians, this has come as a surprise. Both the government and opposition have taken hard-line stances toward immigration and asylum seekers — so tough it was even questioned by President Trump in a phone conversation with the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. As Trump put it: “You are worse than I am.”
Asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia receive particularly unforgiving treatment: They are taken offshore for processing with the pledge that they will never be allowed to settle in Australia. Why is this case different? Some point to the impact of Twitter. Others point to a looming Australian election — expected in May — making the government more sensitive to public pressure.
A simpler explanation may lie in the growing Western revulsion toward Saudi Arabia. Even countries such as Australia, so wedded to the American worldview, can see when a regime has outlasted its utility.
Last year, the Australian government flirted with the idea of moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, matching U.S. policy. By December, though, that idea had shrunk to an acknowledgment of West Jerusalem, and West Jerusalem alone, as the country’s capital — a move that seemed to achieve the remarkable effect of annoying both Israel and Australia’s Muslim neighbors in Asia.
When Trump recently talked of withdrawing thousands of soldiers from Syria and Afghanistan — a move announced without consultation with U.S. allies — the Australian government again avoided the usual craven lockstep. “Our government will always lean forward into this,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, talking of the war against Islamist extremism.
Are things shifting subtly when it comes to Australia and the United States? Has the death of Khashoggi, and Trump’s blithe acceptance of the Saudi side of the story, provided a trigger for change?
Certainly, if Alqunun escapes to a new life in Australia, it may be partly due to Khashoggi and the horrors he suffered.
As the ABC’s Sophie McNeill put it: “The world is now watching closely, I think, much closer than they were, what Saudi Arabia is doing to its own citizens.”