Asylum and the 'gay Saudi'

The New York Times has a report giving a few more details about the case of Ali Ahmad Asseri, the Saudi diplomat who is seeking asylum in the US on the grounds that he is gay. The Los Angeles Times also notes some negative reactions in the Arab media.

Writing in the Crossroads Arabia blog, John Burgess raises some questions about the affair and rightly points out that it has opened the door for all sorts of spin (eg against Islam in general). One angle is Asseri's reported friendship with a Jewish woman (cue accusations of Saudi antisemitism) though the New York Times says she is Israeli – which would make a difference where members of the Saudi diplomatic service are concerned.

Burgess concludes, though, that what is being reported is not sufficient to merit political asylum – which is where I disagree.

There may well be other aspects of the case that we don't know about, but Asseri has applied for asylum on the grounds that he is gay (he says the Saudis found out about it before he announced it to the US media) and therefore has a well-founded fear of persecution if he returns to the kingdom. 

That is the basis of his asylum claim, and it's also the basis on which the US authorities will have to consider it.

Mr Asseri appears to be the first Saudi ever to publicly declare himself gay so this is uncharted territory. But let's consider (as US officials will have to do) what might happen if he were forced to return home.

First, there's a lot of exaggerated talk about execution. I don't believe the Saudi authorities are raring to chop his head off at the earliest opportunity. They are more likely in a quandary and wishing the whole thing would go away.

The problem is that with the Saudi judicial system scarcely under state control – wayward judges, etc – it's very likely that under pressure from religious elements a case would be brought which could result in Asseri being sentenced to death if not actually executed. Some recent examples include the TV fortune-teller and the "Jeddah Casanova".

Because of the international publicity already attached to the case, it's unlikely he would be executed but he could easily be sentenced to imprisonment and flogging. In terms of asylum law, that also counts as persecution where the "crime" involved is homosexuality.

Aside from judicial persecution, and perhaps more importantly, there is the question of persecution by society. How can a man who is now very publicly known to be gay live openly in the kingdom (as opposed to the thousands who keep their sexuality secret)?

Never mind about the problem of finding someone willing to employ him and other likely acts of discrimination – it would be a Salman Rushdie kind of situation where he would need constant protection from possible attacks by extremists, and I very much doubt that the Saudi authorites are able (or willing) to provide that.

As a general rule, I would not encourage gay people to seek asylum: the goal should be to create conditions where they can live safely in their own countries. But there are some cases where asylum is the only solution and, on the basis of what we currently know about Mr Asseri, his case appears to be one of them.