On the gay Saudi diplomat
MUCH has been written about the Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles, Ali Ahmad Asseri, who has gone into hiding in the US after applying for political asylum for being gay and fearing execution if he returns to Saudi Arabia.
Michael Issikoff broke the story for NBC News on Sept. 11, reporting that Asseri had claimed in an interview by email that he felt his life was in danger after the Saudi Consulate found out he was gay, had a female Israeli Jewish friend and subsequently refused to renew his diplomatic passport. According to the diplomat, employees of the consulate followed him to gay bars and presumably were monitoring his every move.
Issikoff quotes Ali Al-Ahmad of the Gulf Institue in Washington, D.C., who is a Saudi dissident, as saying that Asseri did have cause for grave concern over his own security if he returned to the kingdom because of his criticism of four Saudi princes living in the Los Angeles area and receiving salaries from the consulate, in an open letter to King Abdullah. “This statement is enough to put Mr. Asseri in danger if he returns to Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmad. I disagree because most Saudis are well aware that there are numerous members of the royal family that get stipends and do nothing very constructive with their lives. The fact that Asseri did not name any names in his open letter that he posted online, seems to indicate that he is more desperate to gain asylum in the US, then to cause real embarrassment to the Al-Saud family.
A later story in the Los Angeles Times blog quotes Ahmad as saying that the consulate would probably be more concerned about Asseri’s friendship with the Israeli woman, as they would be afraid that she might be a spy for Israel. That makes sense to me.
As former US diplomat John Burgess noted on his blog Crossroads Arabia, “The Saudi government certainly does not want gay diplomats representing the country. It has gay diplomats representing it already. Most are smart enough to not draw attention to themselves.”
Asseri claimed in his email interview that he would killed “in broad daylight” if he returned to Saudi. I highly doubt this, as do Berger and Saudi blogger Qusay Fayoumi. The death penalty has been rarely used against gay men in Saudi, unlike in neighboring Iran. The Saudi men who were executed in 2002 for having been in a gay situation were killed for allegedly raping underage boys. But this is not to say that gay men do not get punished in the kingdom. The more masculine and well-connected ones can get away with being gay for all of their lives, mostly by avoiding the notorious religious police who love to prey on poorer Saudi gay men, the more feminine ones and foreign gay workers.
Qusay, like many younger and more educated Saudis of his generation (he’s thirtysomething), believes that gay men have it easy in Saudi. “Saudi never went all Cuba on gays…” he wrote in his post on Asseri. Unfortunately, Qusay is mistaken in his rosy-tinted vision of life in Saudi Arabia. Many Filipino, Arab and Saudi gay men are regularly arrested by the religious police, who after torturing them and extracting confessions of being “gay” or “acting like women“, are handed over to regular police and put on trial. The average sentence handed down is nine months to a year imprisonment with 90-120 lashes and deportation at the end of the jail term for the foreigners. How this is better than how gays were treated in Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s is hard to tell. (For a glimpse of gay life in Cuba watch Julian Schnabel’s excellent 2000 film Before Night Falls, which is the autobiography of the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was imprisoned for two years for being gay.)
The Saudi Embassy in Washington claims that Asseri was never fired but merely transfered back to the Minstry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh after his four-year tour (and one-year extension) in the US ended.
If Asseri returned to the kingdom I doubt he would be imprisoned or killed. He could have found himself without a job and had his right to travel abroad revoked. Even so I think the US should grant him asylum. I hardly think that doing so would seriously dent Saudi-US relations. At most it would cause a tiny blip that would soon be forgotten by both sides.