Escaping Saudi Arabia’s gilded cage
By Ali AlAhmed
The life of a princess in the House of Saud comes with an unlimited bank account – and no basic freedoms The British court was right when it granted asylum to a female member of the Al Saud ruling family and protected her identity. The woman fled Saudi Arabia in fear for her life after having a baby with a non-Muslim British man, whose identity is also kept secret.
This young woman was married to a disabled prince in his 70s who has other wives and children older than her. The unknown princess is brave for giving up the status, the luxury, and power that comes with belonging to Al Saud, the largest ruling family in human history who are running the largest absolute monarchy in the world today.
Many dream to live a princess’s life with loads of money. But that life is a golden cage, and Saudi princesses – who have access to unlimited bank accounts – lack the basic freedoms enjoyed by most women around the world. They cannot marry anyone who is not a prince. The Al Saud are “wife takers, not wife givers”, Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Saudi scholar at King’s College London explained. Saudi princesses live under guard for most of their lives with limited movement inside posh palaces or hotel penthouses. They are expected to marry cousins who usually have other wives and see them once a week – if the princess is lucky.
In fact, Saudi law instituted by the king forbids the marriage of Al Saud princesses to males who are not from Al Saud, unless prior permission from the royal court is received. This law is un-Islamic, in addition to being illogical. In Islam, family lineage does not matter when it comes to marriage. The Prophet Mohammed married his cousin Zainab off to a former slave. The Al Saud must cancel this medieval law and allow their daughters to marry whoever they wish – including commoners.
A few years ago, I met the assistant of a princess who was married to one of the most powerful princes in the country. The wife was 18 when she married her 75-year-old suitor. For most of the year, the young princess was stuck inside the palace surrounded by dozens of maids and servants catering to her wishes. The young princess then found a way to the outside world by chatting with boys on her laptop inside the bedroom. Her famous husband paid her a two-hour visit every Saturday in that same bedroom.
The story of this princess reflects how the Saudi ruling family treats its own women and the women of the country in general. Confining women in gilded cages doesn’t make the confinement easier or acceptable. Human beings, even princesses, need freedom to be happy and to feel normal. Confinement destroys their humanity and turns their lives into a miserable and empty existence.
This brave princess chose to give up wealth and power either for love or freedom in the face of tremendous danger to her life. She had to trust that the British government would not hand her back to her family who would have killed her.
The British government must also be encouraged to grant asylum to dozens of Saudis who have applied in the past few years. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s leading violators of human rights, and Saudis who seek asylum tend to be real victims of torture, imprisonment and severe violations. The United Kingdom has shown itself as the leading haven for people who are seeking shelter, even more so than the United States. This British tradition of providing protection to oppressed people should not be subjected to political considerations.
The west, especially the United States, is partially responsible for the dismal status of women and the harsh conditions of human rights in Saudi Arabia. US officials have turned a blind eye to the ruling family’s policies of oppressing human rights, religious freedom and women for the past six decades. In his confirmation hearing last Wednesday, Obama’s nominee for US ambassador to Riyadh, General James Smith, praised King Abdullah as a reformer. Describing an absolute monarch, and dictator, as a reformer is an affront.
Let us protect this princess from the fate that in 1978 befell Princess Mashael Fahd Bin Mohamed Bin Abdul Aziz who was executed for a love affair with a young Saudi man. Her story was captured by English journalist Antony Thomas in his documentary, Death of a Princess.
I found these lines by the British lyricist Arthur J Lamb which describe the situation well:
She’s only a bird in a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see.
You may think she’s happy and free from care, She’s not, though she seems to be.
‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life For youth cannot mate with age; And her beauty was sold for an old man’s gold, She’s a bird in a gilded cage.