As It Happens

Canada should not turn Saudi teen into a 'political football,' says former ambassador

By "milking" the decision to bring Rahaf al-Qunun to Canada, the Trudeau government could put her at greater risk, says Dennis Horak.

By 'milking' move to accept Rahaf al-Qunun, Trudeau government could put her at risk: Dennis Horak

Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airprot on Saturday morning. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

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If the government insists on "milking" Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's arrival in Canada for political brownie points, it could put the young woman in danger, says Canada's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia. 

Canada will grant asylum to the 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled alleged abuse from her family and spent nearly a week barricaded in a Bangkok hotel room, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday. 

Qunun's story made international headlines after she was stopped at a Bangkok airport last Saturday by Thai immigration police, denied entry and had her passport seized.

On Saturday morning, she arrived in Canada and was accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who said al-Qunun will be going to her unspecified "new home."

Dennis Horak, who served as Canada's ambassador to Saudi Arabia before the Kingdom expelled him last summer amid a diplomatic dust-up, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off before Qunun's arrival in Toronto. Here is part of their conversation. 

You know this has been an extraordinary five days for this Saudi teenager as she pleaded for some place of refuge in the world. Why do you think Canada stepped up?

I think we stepped up because it was the right thing to do. 

You would know better than most that we don't have very good relations right now with Saudi Arabia. Do you think there was something to the fact that Canada doesn't have anything to lose when it comes to diplomatic relations with the Saudis?

We still have something to lose. They could break off diplomatic relations with us.

But no, I think it was just consistent with what Canada does. It's consistent with the government's position on women and human rights. And so I think that was probably the main motivator.

Why do you think other countries, particularly Australia, did not accept her?

I'm not sure if they didn't accept or they dragged their feet, but they do have a relationship that is stronger than ours and they may have had concerns that there would be some blowback. 

Everyone saw what happened to us this summer with a tweet.

Dennis Horak is the former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

The tweet you mentioned, of course, it deals with human rights, doesn't it? It was saying that Canada is gravely concerned about the additional arrests of civil society and women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia. That's the position Canada has taken with Saudi Arabia again. Taking this woman in, I guess, is a continuation of that. What does that do to our relationship with Saudi Arabia?

It's not going to help, for sure.

As you mentioned, we're in a not a very good place for that relationship with Saudi Arabia at the moment, and this will be seen as probably just another example of our interference in Saudi's internal affairs.

So it's not going to have a positive impact, but we shouldn't let it deter us.

But it will be how much we are seen to be quote-unquote milking this for whatever political or diplomatic leverage or advantage that we have ... that will somehow also condition the Saudi response.

So in that term of how we might be "milking" this, what are you watching for?

There will be obviously ... media attention when she arrives, and the question is how much we politically associate with this, how much of a political football she becomes — if we have the prime minister greeting her and the minister greeting her and press conferences and all of that.

And if she, down the road, she decides that ... she would like to become the poster child for guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia and the need for human rights changes, that's up to her.

But I don't think it would be in her interest for us to be sort of playing that game with her at this point. 

The network of support women who have been helping her say that they're not only worried about her because her father is around and followed her over to Thailand and he's a high-ranking government official trying to make contact with her, but they also mentioned that she renounced Islam, which is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. How can she be protected?

That's right, and we'll have offended a number of very sort of extremist elements, if you will, that are even here in Canada.

So she's in a risky situation, particularly because of that profile, which is why I think it's even doubly important that we not try and use her as a poster child, try not to politically exploit her as government or as Canadian organizations.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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