Yemenis and Saudis
Love across the line
The geopolitics of illicit love
FOR daysYemenhas been abuzz with talk of Huda and Arafat. Huda al-Niran, a 22-year-old Saudi woman, fell in love with Arafat Muhammad, a Yemeni, while he was working inSaudi Arabia. In October the couple fled toYemenafter her parents refused to let them marry, but Ms Niran was arrested for entering the country illegally. She seemed set for a quick trial and deportation. Then their love story became a cause célèbre for young Yemenis, who view it as a version of Romeo and Juliet in the south-west of theArabian peninsula. On November 26th Ms Niran was freed into the custody of the UN for a period of three months, allowing her to seek refugee status.
Yemenis have been gripped by the saga for several reasons. The country's deep-rooted conservative traditions are slowly changing. Young middle-class men and women have grown increasingly willing to challenge their families' expectations, with many now bidding to choose their own spouse rather than submit to an arranged marriage. But more often than not, unlike Mr Muhammad and Ms Niran, they end up putting their adolescent relationships aside and fulfilling their parents' wishes.
Yemeni interest in the star-crossed lovers touches on geopolitics, too. The case has presented an opportunity for Yemenis to score a point against the Saudis, who want the Yemeni authorities to return Ms Niran. Many Yemenis resent their richer and more powerful neighbour's interference in their country's affairs. Moreover, the kingdom recently deported tens of thousands of Yemeni workers after deciding to cut down on foreign labour.
Many of the Yemeni campaigners who spearheaded the protests that led to the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh two years ago have enthusiastically taken up the cause of Ms Niran and Mr Muhammad, organising street protests to press the government to drop the charges against Ms Niran and grant her refugee status. They describe their temporary shift in focus from agitating for political change as ensuring the “victory of love“.
Some Yemenis whisper that public opinion might have been different if the nationalities had been reversed. “Let's face it,“ says a young Yemeni. “If Huda were a Yemeni who ran across the Saudi border with her Saudi boyfriend, we'd be cursing the Saudis and demanding that they send her back.“