Written by Ben Hubbard
An American woman who was stuck illegally in Saudi Arabia with her young daughter after her Saudi husband divorced her said Sunday that Saudi authorities had granted her legal residency after The New York Times wrote about her ordeal last week.
The woman, Bethany Vierra of Washington state, moved to the kingdom in 2011, where she started a business, married a Saudi businessman and gave birth to a daughter, Zaina. Her troubles began after the divorce, when her former husband failed to renew her residency, meaning she was in the kingdom illegally but was also blocked from traveling through airports or accessing her bank account.
Vierra’s case showed how even an American woman and her Saudi-American daughter could be ensnared by the kingdom’s guardianship laws, which grant Saudi men power over women in a number of ways.
Much has changed for women in Saudi Arabia in recent years, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the day-to-day ruler, has pushed to open up society, lifting the ban on driving by women, allowing women to enter sports stadiums and appointing the kingdom’s first female ambassador, to the United States.
Vierra’s case also showed how the kingdom’s authorities could intervene, either out of sympathy or to avoid an international scandal. After her story appeared in The Times, it was picked by other media outlets, including Elle and Fox News.
Vierra, 31, said Sunday in a statement that Saudi officials had intervened in her case and “within hours, my residency issue was solved.”
“I was never trying to escape Saudi Arabia,” Vierra wrote. “I have dedicated my life’s work to this country and being a part of its growth, development and vision for its future.”
Vierra was granted residency as the mother of a Saudi citizen, a relatively new status that she had not been able to obtain after her divorce because her husband refused to provide the required paperwork, according to Nicole Carroll, her cousin.
Vierra can now use her bank account and travel as she pleases. But her new status does not apply to Zaina, 4, whose legal guardian under Saudi law remains her father, Vierra’s ex-husband. Zaina cannot leave the country without his permission, which he has not granted, Carroll said.
Carroll said it remained to be seen whether Saudi authorities would grant Vierra the right to travel abroad with Zaina without the father’s permission. He recently sued Vierra, Carroll said, so the couple have several cases pending in Saudi courts, generally related to issues like custody.
“If it is true and this is a possibility, I suppose it means the country is actually moving forward in the right direction on this,” Carroll said of her cousin’s new ability to travel to see relatives in the United States.
Carroll asked that the name of Vierra’s former husband not be published to avoid provoking his family. He did not respond to a request for comment.