US court to rule in rare Saudi child custody case

A main road in Riyadh (file photo) Image copyright AFP
Image caption The girl’s mother fled from Saudi Arabia on the pretence of visiting family in the US

A court is to decide whether a girl brought to the United States from Saudi Arabia by her American mother to escape a custody agreement must be sent back.

Bethany Alhaidari has asked the court in Washington state to give her custody of her five-year-old daughter Zaina.

She has said the custody agreement with her Saudi ex-husband was signed under duress and that she was not given a fair hearing by Saudi courts.

One judge ruled that Zaina should be kept from her mother’s Western culture.

Ms Alhaidari’s ex-husband, Ghassan rejected her assertions and asked the Washington court to order Zaina – who has dual citizenship – to be returned to Saudi Arabia.

The case, which first came to light last year, has shone a spotlight on the Gulf kingdom’s legal system.

Ms Alhaidari’s ex-husband, Ghassan rejected her assertions and asked the Washington court to order Zaina’s return to Saudi Arabia.

In recent years Saudi Arabia has attempted to shake off its image as one of the most repressive countries in the world for women.

In 2018, the government lifted a long-standing ban on women driving and made changes to the male guardianship system last year, allowing women to apply for passports and travel independently without permission from a man.

However, women continue to face numerous restrictions on their lives, and several women’s rights activists who campaigned for the changes have been detained and put on trial. Some of them are alleged to have been tortured in prison.

‘A foreigner in this country’

Ms Alhaidari, who is studying for a PhD in human rights law, moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to teach at a women’s university. Two years later, she married Mr Alhaidari.

She asked for divorce in 2017 and applied for custody of Zaina the following year.

Ms Alhaidari’s case became public in March 2019, when a relative told the New York Times that her ex-husband – who remained her guardian – had allowed her residency to expire, meaning that she was unable to access her bank account or leave the country.

The Saudi authorities subsequently granted Ms Alhaidari residency as the mother of a Saudi citizen and the custody proceedings continued.

In July, a Saudi judge ruled that both Ms Alhaidari and Mr Alhaidari were unfit to raise Zaina and awarded custody to Mr Alhaidari’s mother.

“[Zaina’s] mother is new to Islam, is a foreigner in this country, and continues to definitively embrace the customs and traditions of her upbringing. We must avoid exposing [Zaina] to these customs and traditions,” the judge wrote.

Ms Alhaidari submitted an appeal against the ruling that August. But she said that it was ignored and that a judge forced her to reach a custody agreement.

She went back to living with her ex-husband and at Christmas he allowed her to take Zaina to see her grandparents in Washington. They did not return.

Obscure law

Ms Alhaidari filed a case with a court in Washington in January that cited a rarely-used clause in the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

The act says state courts must enforce a custody decree made by a court in a foreign country unless the child custody laws of that country violate fundamental principles of human rights.

In 2015, a court in Washington ruled that the state should not enforce custody decrees from Egypt because there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Egyptian child custody laws violated fundamental principles of human rights.

Mr Alhaidari asked the court to enforce the custody agreement registered in Saudi Arabia, saying that his ex-wife was seeking more favourable terms.

“Parents don’t get to just move the child to a foreign state and then start a custody case if they don’t like the parenting plan they had in the child’s home state,” his lawyer, Robert Bennett, told the Wall Street Journal.