Saudi Arabia is scrambling to prevent a young Saudi woman from a public campaign for liberalization.
But the woman, who for weeks has stood in a string of Istanbul street protests and is demanding political rights, is facing a problem. The woman is her own daughter.
Heba al-Shalash, a spokeswoman for the Saudi royal family, was responding Thursday to a question on Saudi-owned al-Arabiya network about an attempted meeting with the daughter, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Istanbul.
She said Friday that the kingdom had no knowledge of the attempted meeting. But al-Shalash said her government would not be deterred.
“Yes, we did make efforts to try to invite her, but we have no way of knowing how much truth there is to such reports,” al-Shalash said in a statement to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. “But we are aware of the steps that have been taken and will continue to make every effort to help the young girl, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, to return home.”
Al-Qunun was on a personal trip from Kuwait to Singapore last week, a trip she thought would take as little as five days. But she did not expect that when she arrived in Bangkok on Jan. 3, that she would find herself in a chaotic situation, and on the lam in a Thai detention center.
Qunun’s mother is the former Saudi royal court secretary and the daughter of a veteran deputy foreign minister.
Qunun, 18, was not going to Bangkok alone. Instead, the teenager had packed food, packed her passport and had asked to go to Bangkok, but had not explicitly asked to enter Thailand illegally, nor mentioned that she had tried to flee Saudi Arabia.
She was still with her father, Saleh al-Qunun, on the way to his nearby Saudi consulate.
Qunun’s father had called her after realizing his daughter was missing, but she denied calling and told him to contact the Saudi embassy if he could not locate her.
When the consulate officials visited her, she told them she was fine, according to Adisa Eduray Pamuk, a journalist who saw the consulate officials. She refused to hand over her passport. They gave her some food and water.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok quickly asked that she leave the country for her own safety, an embassy spokesman said.
And that is where things have gone to a troubling new place.
First she tried to get to Sweden, where her brother is currently attending college.
Then she found herself on the streets of Istanbul, protesting what she said was a campaign to force her into marriage by Saudi authorities.
She does not want to marry, but if forced into it, she’s willing to live with her new husband, she said in an interview with Al Jazeera English.
So far, Qunun, who studied in Australia, has refused to say where she is.
The mysterious kingdom has offered several options: that she abandon the protests, agree to marry her new husband, or return to Saudi Arabia and turn herself in for prosecution, which could come with a prison sentence of several years.
The Saudi Consulate General in Bangkok has imposed restrictions on video cameras and journalists asking to interview her. However, on Monday, she emerged from the consulate with her lawyer, who was able to help her reclaim her passport.
Her father made another attempt to visit her at the hospital where she is being detained, but the detention center manager refused to allow him to, Pamuk said.
Al-Qunun has told her sister and attorney that she has been pushed to talk out of fear that if she does not, Saudi authorities could deport her back to Saudi Arabia.
It could take the family weeks to learn whether she was able to escape from Thailand and to bring her home. Saudi Arabia could block her passport by doing nothing at all, taking the entire operation as a deliberate effort to ruin her chances of a return.
But they might instead come to the realization that her story had far larger implications.
As Pamuk told the Associated Press on Thursday, “This was an accident waiting to happen, with more fallout on the Saudi human rights environment than we can even imagine.”