How an American woman lost a bitter custody battle with her Saudi ex and fled the kingdom to save her daughter

American woman vs Saudi Arabian courts for child custody 2x1
Bethany Vierra and her daughter, Zaina. Courtesy of Bethany Vierra; Marianne Ayala/Insider
  • In 2019, Bethany Vierra lost custody of her daughter to her Saudi ex and was trapped in the country.

  • While her case made international news, she faced intimidation and harassment in the kingdom.

  • She told Insider how she and her child managed to escape to the US and remain there.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

On March 7, 2019, Bethany Vierra pulled up outside a coffee shop in downtown Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, feeling apprehensive and scared.

That morning, the American PhD candidate had received a call from a man identifying himself as a high-ranking Saudi government official, saying it was essential that they meet.

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"Send me everything you have on WhatsApp right now," the man instructed down the phone, she recounted to Insider in a recent interview. "We're going to drop a pin and you're going to come there."

Two days before, a story had appeared in The New York Times about a 31-year-old woman in Saudi Arabia - Vierra - whose American family was accusing her ex-husband, a Saudi businessman, of using his power as her residency sponsor to trap her in the country while she sued for full custody of their young daughter, Zaina.

Vierra's ex-husband, Ghassan al-Haidari, had refused to renew her residency card - effectively making it illegal for her to be in the country and unable to travel abroad. Every non-Saudi living in the country, no matter the gender, needs a sponsor to ensure their continued residency.

Within hours of that call, Vierra was departing the coffee shop with a brand new Saudi residency ID card.

"A guy was just ... there, and we exchanged [paperwork]. He gave me the ID. It was creepy," Vierra said.

The Times story appeared to jolt the Saudi government into action, propelling the custody case from a domestic dispute to a political liability involving an American.

Vierra's divorce and custody proceedings were well documented at the time, but now that she is safely out of Saudi Arabia she feels freer to speak of her ordeal.

Bethany Vierra and Zaina Supplied
Vierra and Zaina pictured in Washington state after leaving Saudi Arabia. Supplied

An escape plan

Vierra moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to teach at a women's university, and unexpectedly fell in love with al-Haidari. They married in Portugal in 2013, but divorced in January 2019 following what they both described as domestic unhappiness.

Around four months after the Times story was published, Vierra lost the custody battle, and the stream of news coverage slowed to a drip. But her problems didn't.

Vierra appealed the ruling but the Saudi judge ignored her claim, she told Insider. At this point, the US Embassy in Riyadh intervened and Vierra and al-Haidari, supervised by the judge and US officials, met behind closed doors to sign a joint custody agreement.

Vierra said she had to sign it, as it was her only chance to be there for Zaina.

"That was essentially a life sentence for me. With no power, completely at his mercy, unable to ever leave, I had no option there," she said. "The system failed and I had to reexpose my daughter to that really bad, toxic environment."

But in private, Vierra hatched a plan.

bethany vierra saudi
Vierra and Zaina outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Supplied

In the weeks that followed, she worked to patch things up with al-Haidari in the hopes that he would grant her and Zaina permission to visit her family in Wenatchee, Washington, in time for Christmas. She started sleeping with him again, she said.

She hoped to win back his trust, which worked: Al-Haidari softened, and granted Zaina and Vierra permission as her sponsor to visit the US.

On December 15, the mother and daughter landed in Seattle and never returned - an outright violation of the joint custody agreement.

A US court is preventing Zaina from being returned to Saudi Arabia

Some 16 months later, Vierra is still in the US and close to ensuring her daughter may never be forced to return to Saudi Arabia - a move that's come in the form of a bold court ruling and a new Washington state law introduced to protect her.

Arriving home in December 2019, Vierra sued for custody of Zaina, now 6, in a Chelan County court, which ruled in her favor on February 8 this year.

The court said it could not return Zaina to Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom often fails to ensure basic human rights in court.

"A legal system that is set up to not only fail to protect but to deny basic human rights ... is not a legal system whose child custody laws this State can honor," Judge Kristen Ferrera wrote in a ruling seen by Insider.

The judgment is significant in that it breaks with a US pledge to return children to their country of origin, as part of the Hague Abduction Convention.

"Normally the US respects court orders, especially when it comes to child custody in foreign countries," Vierra said. "The judgment is incredibly brave, but it's incredibly vulnerable on appeal."

As the case elapsed, Vierra was also lobbying her representatives to introduce unique legislation that would shield her in the courts.

Those efforts paid off, too. On April 14, the state of Washington passed HB 1042, requiring courts involved in foreign custody disputes to consider that country's human-rights record before making a decision. The law specifically considers whether that country punishes people for their religion, politics, or sexual orientation with the death penalty - which Saudi Arabia often does.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. swisshippo/iStock

"This new law will save lives," State Rep. My-Linh Thai, one of the bill's sponsors, told Insider. "I am pleased that Ms. Bethany Vierra and her daughter Zaina are not put in danger of losing their lives while fighting a custody case."

Meanwhile, al-Haidari is appealing Ferrera's ruling, but Vierra believes his legal argument contains weaknesses that won't stand up to HB 1042. "It completely changes everything," Vierra said of the new state law.

Al-Haidari and his lawyer declined Insider's requests for comment. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, did not respond to requests for comment.

'We must avoid exposing Zaina to these traditions'

After the New York Times story was published, other Western news outlets reported on Vierra's plight, framing her experience as a cautionary tale about the Saudi guardianship system.

Every woman in Saudi Arabia has a male legal guardian who can control parts of their lives, which can include how they access money and who they marry. Al-Haidari was not Vierra's guardian, but her sponsor, as she was not a Saudi citizen.

Saudi guardianship constraints have eased remarkably since late 2019, but Vierra's custody battle came at a time when the kingdom's reputation was taking a hammering.

Months before, the CIA had concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The kingdom had also been criticized for clamping down on freedom of expression, and denying basic rights to women and minorities.

Throughout the case, Vierra accused the Saudi courts of discrimination, saying she was being unfairly treated because she was a woman and a non-Muslim. Vierra said the judge disregarded video evidence that showed her husband being verbally abusive to her and evidence that he took drugs in front of Zaina.

In the custody ruling, the judge said Vierra was unfit to parent because she was a westerner. "The mother is new to Islam and a foreigner in this country and embraces customs and traditions in the way she was raised," the judge wrote, according to The New York Times. "We must avoid exposing [Zaina] to these traditions."

Bethany Vierra
Bethany Vierra. Facebook/Myron Vierra

Vierra also said she was subject to "creepy threats."

In one instance, days after receiving her new Saudi residency ID card, Vierra was at her yoga studio when a Saudi man arrived at the door. Vierra recognized him immediately, she said, from parties hosted by Western government officials in the diplomatic quarter.

"We helped you with your ID, so now you're going to delete what you're writing online, from your PhD, your human-rights stuff, you need to delete that," the man said, according to Vierra.

It had been a secret - albeit poorly kept - among her expat friends that Vierra had written about human rights in Saudi Arabia for publications like The Daily Beast and Al-Monitor under a pen name - Bayan Perazzo - and that her PhD focused heavily on human rights.

But "he had no way to know what had happened," she told Insider.

In March 2019, the pro-government newspaper Arab News also fabricated a quote from her, she said, recalling feeling rattled but unable to speak out.

The newspaper cited her as saying: "I'm not trying to politicize my divorce; this is not a guardian issue" in response to her high-profile custody issue, as well as: "I am here to stay in Saudi Arabia." Vierra told Insider she said no such things. Arab News did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

Vierra said that during the custody trial, she also had to be careful of what she said to avoid the wrath of Saudi Arabia's courts and army of Twitter bots, which have been reported to be sanctioned by the Saudi state.

Vierra says she was hounded by those accounts, and remains so to this day. Last month, Hussain al-Gawi, one of Saudi Arabia's most popular journalists, accused Vierra of being a US spy.

The US Embassy is 'frequently involved' in Saudi-American marriages

Vierra's case provides a glimpse into how the State Department reacts when Americans run into legal trouble in Saudi Arabia.

"It happens all the time with these [Saudi-American] marriages," David Rundell, a former chief of mission at the US Embassy in Riyadh, told Insider. "The embassy is frequently involved in these cases."

Vierra told Insider that several US Embassy staff accompanied her to hearings as a show of solidarity, and Rundell said this is not unusual, and not unique to US embassies and consulates around the world.

"We go to the court and we make it clear that the US is supporting its citizen, and we'd appreciate if this lady was allowed to leave," he said. "It's usually not a problem of the mother leaving, it's usually a problem of the child."

us embassy riyadh
The entrance to the US embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

But while the US Embassy supported her in some ways, it fell short in others, Vierra said. She said her ex-husband was abusive and that she asked the embassy to protect her daughter in May 2019.

"I went to the US Embassy with my daughter ... and requested protection from the State Department. We were there for 12 hours, and at the end it was rejected," she said.

Throughout the custody case, the embassy also repeatedly told her that its hands were tied until due legal process was completed in the Saudi courts.

Only when Vierra claimed that her appeal to the custody ruling was being ignored did US officials broach the subject with Saudi counterparts, she said.

"The embassy wishes to express its serious concern about the implications of the court's reasoning in this case, which appears to be prejudicial to the rights of American citizens," the embassy wrote to the Saudi Foreign Ministry on July 18, 2019, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by Insider.

A State Department spokeswoman told Insider: "We take seriously our responsibility to assist US citizens abroad, and to provide all appropriate consular services."

"The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the spokeswoman said, adding that she could not discuss the particulars of Vierra's particular case due to privacy concerns.

An end in sight

Vierra, now 33, appears to be safe to keep Zaina in the US. She now lives in Cashmere, a city in Washington, and works an advocate for Americans trapped in Saudi Arabia under circumstances like her own, appears to be home and dry.

Al-Haidari is appealing Judge Ferrera's ruling, but Vierra believes he won't succeed in Washington state thanks to HB 1024, the state law passed in April to protect her.

"That bill that is like an end-all. He can appeal, he can do whatever he wants but with that law in Washington state, he's going to lose," she said.

"We're really talking about time and money," she said. "The headache will be ongoing, but I'm here, and she's here, and I really think, sometimes I forget to just pause and take that in."

Editor's note: This story was edited to clarify that Ghassan al-Haidari was Vierra's residency sponsor, not her guardian.

Read the original article on Insider