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LGBTQ emerges as a litmus test for limits of Saudi reforms

James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia has turned LGBTQ rights into a litmus test for the limits of social reforms by sending mixed messages.

In line with broad-based official and popular rejection of gender diversity and fluidity in the kingdom and across the Muslim World, the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media this week announced that a new, highly-acclaimed Spider-Man movie would not be shown in the country's cinemas.

The United Arab Emirates also removed ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,’ from its release schedule. The decision called into question a UAE announcement in 2021 that it ended cinematic censorship.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE banned Lightyear, a Disney and Pixar animated production last year, because of a same-sex kiss scene. It also barred Disney's Doctor Strange in the Universe of Madness, in which one character refers to her "two mums."

Also last year, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) accused the US streaming giant Netflix of showing content that “contradicts Islamic values.” The GCC groups Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

A general view of the 43rd Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit at King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia - Anadolu Agency

The Saudi decision to ban the sequel to the 2018 film ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,’ takes on added significance because it follows a startling announcement six weeks earlier by the Saudi Tourism Authority that LGBTQ tourists would be welcome in the kingdom.

“We don’t ask anyone to disclose personal details and never have. Everyone is welcome to visit our country,” the authority said in its tourism website's Frequently Asked Questions section.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made tourism a pillar of his Vision 2030 plan to turn Saudi Arabia into a cutting-edge 21st-century state, diversify the kingdom's economy, and reduce its dependence on oil exports.

A schedule of penalties for violations of public decency published by the tourism website lists fines rather than the far harsher consequences on Saudi legal books for ‘indecent behaviour, including acts of a sexual nature” and the wearing of “improper clothing,“ including garb with “obscene images or symbols.”

Saudi Arabia’s Sharia-based code criminalises same-sex sexual activity and transgender expression. Although not applied recently, the law provides maximum death penalties.

Saudi authorities last year conducted “rainbow raids” on shops selling children’s toys and accessories.

Authorities targeted clothing and toys, including hair clips, pop-its, t-shirts, bows, skirts, hats, and colouring pencils "that contradict the Islamic faith and public morals and promote homosexual colours that target the younger generation," a commerce ministry official said at the time.

The Saudi cinema authority made no explicit mention of LGBTQ content in its banning of the Spider-Man movie that contains brief references to transgender children.

It asserted that the film “contradicts content controls.” The authority said, "the decision will remain in place unless the production companies commit to implementing the required amendments.”

The various incidents suggest that the announcement welcoming non-Saudi LGBTQ tourists did not signify a change in domestic policies or herald a reform of laws regarding gender diversity and fluidity.

The announcement further suggested that Mr. Bin Salman did not find it necessary to consider presumed public sentiment. While there are no polls on LGBTQ rights, it is fair to assume that a significant segment of the Saudi population would oppose more flexible policies toward LGBTQ.

Mr. Bin Salman’s harsh repression of freedom of expression and dissent makes it difficult, if not impossible, to gauge public opinion.

Some analysts argue that the announcement welcoming LGBTQ tourists was little more than a public relations ploy to preempt pressure from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during last week’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah on June 7, 2023. (Amer Hilabi/Pool Photo via AP)

The announcement potentially also strengthens a possible Saudi bid to host the 2030 World Cup.

“The tourism announcement will play well in the United States,” one analyst said.

Even so, without legs, the announcement, rather than serving as an indication of Saudi intent, could ultimately be seen as yet another sign that Saudi willingness to appease the Biden administration and the kingdom's critics in the US Congress is, at best half-hearted.

Saudi Arabia could have earned brownie points at no cost had it lifted, before or during Mr. Blinken's visit, travel bans on three dual US-Saudi nationals, including a 72-year-old imprisoned for tweets critical of the kingdom.

Sentenced this year to 19 years in prison for posting criticism of the government on Twitter when he was in Florida, Saad Ibrahim Almadi was released in March but forbidden to leave the kingdom.

Last year, Mr. Blinken insisted at a first-ever State Department briefing for LGBTQI reporters that “we have real engagement” on LGBTQ issues with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud.

Mr. Blinken said he raises the issue “invariably, in every conversation” with his Saudi counterpart.

Mr. Bin Farhan appeared dismissive during Mr. Blinken’s visit.

"We are always open to having a dialogue with our friends, but we don’t respond to pressure. When we do anything, we do it in our own interests," Mr. Bin Farhan said.

Taken together, Mr. Bin Farhan's comment and the kingdom's recent track record suggest the banning of the Spider-Man movie rather than the announcement regarding LGBTQ tourists signals the essence of Saudi policy. The message is that policy changes are, at best marginal.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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