Saudi Arabia Mother Wins Custody Battle for Daughter and to Remain in America

Divorce and child custody are often bitter legal proceedings even under the best of circumstances. However, such cases can be made even worse when religious differences and foreign countries’ laws are involved.  

Bethany Alhaidari is the executive director for Sage, an advocacy center for abuse victims. Bethany has recently prevailed in a child custody batter with her ex-husband, Ghassan Alhaidari, over ZA, their daughter (her name has been abbreviated to protect her identity). The case was heard in Wenatchee Valley, Washington state, where Bethany’s extended family lives, though the couple’s divorce was finalized in Saudi Arabia. ZA is an American citizen since she was born. Neither Bethany nor ZA have returned to Saudi Arabia since they left in 2019.  

Alhaidari History in Saudi Arabia  

Ghassan and Bethany Alhaidari married in Saudi Arabia in November 2013. Bethany is a United States citizen, and Ghassan is a citizen of Saudi Arabia. ZA was born to them in December 2014 and is a dual citizen of both countries.  

Ghassan and Bethany countered difficulties in their marriage, which strife worsened over time. The parties went to counseling in an effort to resolve their relationship problems, but to no avail. Bethany claims that Ghassan verbally and physically abused her, sometimes in the presence of their daughter. Ghassan has always denied the allegations. 

In September 2017, Bethany asked Ghassan for a divorce. Under Saudi law, if Bethany filed for divorce, the law demanded that she provide a reason and return her dowry. Ghassan could file for divorce without making payment and without giving any justification. Ghassan initially refused the request for a divorce, but later contended that he had divorced Bethany in 2018. 

In January 2019, a Saudi Arabia judge heard their case. Bethany contends she did not have a lawyer during this proceeding, the court appointed interpreter did not speak or understand English and as such Bethany struggled to understand what was said. The judge at one point ordered Bethany to leave the courtroom and only return if her entire face, including her eyes, was covered as well. Bethany contends she was wearing a full body black covering that also covered her hair. Bethany also contends her testimony was not considered by the judge because she did not have two male witnesses.  

During the custody dispute, Ghassan Alhaidari posted photos of his then-wife in a bikini practicing yoga, leading her to be investigated by Saudi police for public indecency and disrupting public order. Ghassan also accused her of insulting Islam, a crime that carries the death penalty inside the kingdom.  

The Saudi court granted the divorce, but denied Bethany alimony and ordered custody of ZA to the father. The court derided Bethany as a foreigner, who embraced western cultural traditions. The judge mourned that ZA spoke fluent English. The couple eventually agreed to a written custody arrangement, though Ghassan accused Bethany of refusing visitation. The Saudi government issued an arrest warrant for Bethany and a ten-year travel ban prohibiting her from leaving Saudi Arabia.  

Bethany appealed the case and the Saudi appeals court ruled that no one had custody of ZA. However, under Saudi law, if no one has custody over a child, then custody automatically reverts to the father.  

Saudi law required that Bethany receive her ex-husband’s permission to leave the country with their daughter. Bethany pretended to apologize to Ghassan and to be in love with him again to win his trust to leave the kingdom with their then eight-year-old daughter. Ghassan finally consented. 

Legal Case in Wenatchee Valley 

Bethany Alhaidari left Saudi Arabia with ZA in 2019. Bethany has lived in the Wenatchee Valley, WA with ZA ever since, in defiance of the Saudi custody order. Alhaidari immediately filed for emergency jurisdiction in Washington state court. Although the US usually enforces foreign custody orders, there is an exception for severe human rights violations. Bethany alleges she suffered emotional, verbal, and physical abuse from her husband.  

In 2021, Chelan County Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera ruled that the Saudi custody order could not be enforced in Washington because it did not acknowledge the rights of mothers or women in general. Mr. Alhaidari appealed the ruling, though the appellate court has recently upheld Judge Ferrera’s decision at the end of October 2023. The appeals court found “ample evidence” to support the lower court’s conclusion that Alhaidari would face a death sentence if she were to return to Saudi Arabia because of her religious and political beliefs. The appeals court also found that the custody agreement Bethany had signed while living in Saudi Arabia had been made under duress.  

The United States Has Every Right to Defend Its Own Citizens  

Ghassan may contend that America, like Bethany, have broken their agreements to Saudi Arabia, an American ally. The United States typically honors contracts formed in other countries. However, the Washington state courts have decided to exercise jurisdiction over the case rather than recognize or enforce the Saudi court’s rulings. Bethany herself admits that she lied to Ghassan during the writing of the custody agreement and faked reconciliation in order to permanently take ZA out of Saudi Arabia, in defiance of the Saudi government. 

However, as the courts in Wenatchee Valley correctly determined, there can be no agreement when one party is coerced to it. This compulsion may occur even with the force of a country’s law behind it, and is made worse because of the full force and effect of such law.  

Bethany faced torture and the death penalty during her custody proceedings because of religious “crimes” that no American court would ever recognize as a crime. Bethany was accused of public disorder in Saudi Arabia for practicing yoga, an accusation punishably by public lashings. She was accused of having male friends and a boyfriend, which Bethany had denied, an accusation punishably by public lashings. She was accused of apostacy, or abandoning Islam, an accusation punishable by death.  

Despite these accusations and their penalties, the Saudi courts refused to provide a proper translator or to consider Bethany’s testimony or even the testimony of her witnesses because they couldn’t be corroborated by two male witnesses. Even the Saudi appeals court decision that no one should receive custody was a farce, since such a ruling lead to the father receiving custody under Saudi law. Bethany was not given a fair trial by the state since the Saudi courts never treated the women in the case as an equal to a man.  

Moreoer, the Saudi courts were seemingly prejudiced against Bethany not only as a woman, but also as an American. The Saudi trial court was allegedly openly biased against Bethany as a “foreigner,” despite her residence in the country at the time. The Saudi trial court even expressed apprehension that ZA spoke fluent English, a bizarre concern since the ability to speak multiple languages is often useful.  

Although Saudi courts may not respect American citizens, and in fact appear openly biased against them, American courts make superior decisions when they treat both parents fairly.  

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Family Law Issue?  

If you have encountered any issue related to family law, you should contact a family lawyer as soon as possible. A skilled family lawyer can answer your questions, provide guidance on your case, and represent your best interests in court. If your case involves another country, it is also essential to contact an immigration attorney. Immigration laws are complex and have many deadlines that must be met.  

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