Saudi Arabia: a beacon for women’s rights?

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The royal decree granting Saudi women the right to drive astonished the Western world and geared up approval for the house of Saud. What is driving the reforms and are they achievable? Could the changes dismantle Wahhabi traditions of strict sexual segregation and halt the export of extremist ideology?

The historic women’s right to drive announced by King Salman on September 26 is one of a string of reforms, including the appointment of the first female spokeswoman at the Saudi embassy in Washington. A new law is being drafted to criminalize sexual harassment, and women chosen by royal decree can become muftis with authority to issue fatwas or rulings. This year, women were permitted entry into the King Fahd International Stadium to celebrate Saudi National Day, and from 2018, will be allowed into three sports arenas. The city of Jeddah recently held the first women’s basketball tournament. Saudi women will be able to work in the Justice Ministry, and from 2018, train as pilots. This month, the first live concert by a female musician attracted thousands of women. Many threw off their Islamic robes and danced. Sophia the robot may have signaled more reforms when she received Saudi citizenship during an investment conference in Riyadh without the regulation Islamic dress and male guardian.

The new edicts are in line with previous reforms. Earlier this year, amendments to guardianship laws gave women admission to health care and education without a male guardian’s consent. In 2013, the "No More Abuse" campaign was introduced by the King Khalid Foundation, followed by a ban on domestic violence. In order to protect women against abuse, the government established 64 centres and 17 committees. Allegedly, one in six women are abused daily, mostly by husbands or fathers.

In August 2017, legislation was passed to restrict marriage for girls under 17 and establish an alimony fund for divorcees and children. Women were also given easier access to custody of children.

The reforms are not simply aimed to gain international approval. There is considerable domestic support for lifting the driving ban, estimated at 77% according to a recent poll. Women’s right to drive is also a necessity for ‘Vision 2030,’ an ambitious plan for economic diversification and reducing dependence on oil revenues and foreign laborers. Announced last year by King Salman’s son, 32-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, the plan aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce, unhampered by the constraints and expense of mandatory chauffeurs - mostly foreign workers. The process of integration is already underway. In the past four years, the number of women working in the private sector has increased by 130%.

The prince is young enough to understand the needs of Saudi youth, unbound by the Internet and study abroad. Over 200,000 students in the $6 billion King Abdullah Scholarship Program have taken courses in top universities abroad. Women, who formed a substantial proportion of students, are now qualified to make significant economic, cultural and political contributions to their home country.

Bolstering support for the succession is vital for the monarchy. In June, the ailing King Salman elevated MbS to Crown Prince and current de facto ruler. Following a dramatic purge approved by Saudi’s leading religious body, many princes, government ministers, military officers and business figures were detained on corruption charges. These mass arrests warn the elites that the days of dozy gerontocracy, profligacy, and bribes for loyalty and negotiating oil deals are over.

The populist reforms will help MbS shore up domestic support due to falling revenues in the oil-based economy. People are used to handouts and 67% of employees work in government jobs, often sinecures.

A downward trend in the oil price also impacts hardline Wahhabi clergy by shrinking the means to promote their radical Islamist ideology in mosques and universities worldwide. Halting this activity would improve relations with the West at a time when the kingdom’s reduced economic circumstances require sourcing new trade opportunities and foreign investment in the Saudi Aramco IPO.

Liberalisation is not without risk to the kingdom’s stability. Founded on a historical pact between the monarchy and clergy, the two pillars are dependent on each other for legitimacy.

To effect change, MbS must balance reforms against pressure by Salafi clerics who aim for a purer, early form of Islam. In 1979, a faction of radical Salafis, led by a member of a distinguished Saudi family, laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca. The group’s demand for an end to the monarchy, their accusations of dangerous Westernization, and the bloodbath that followed, still resonate through the House of Saud.

Despite the absence of specific religious laws against women’s right to drive, the patriarchal culture and strict sexual segregation present impediments to the new law.

Could women obtain a licence photograph in a culture that considers uncovering her face a sin? Are women able to drive safely without removing their veils? Will women be tempted to leave the house without permission? Could the social changes encourage Westernization?

Would female traffic police be required to question women carrying a male passenger or mixing with men on motorways or petrol stations? Being alone with an unrelated male is a punishable crime. In this society, a young woman and her former boyfriend were each sentenced to ninety lashes for sitting together in a car. If the laws of sexual segregation are discarded, the patriarchal system will be shaken to its foundations.

There is a long way to go. According to the World Economic Forum, Saudi Arabia ranks 141 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap. Yet in April, the kingdom was elected by United Nations member states to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a travesty shared with Iran.

Ambitious reforms will undoubtedly depend on the ability of MbS and his government to steer modernity through a domestic landscape of reactionary, religious, tribal, and royal family fissures. On a regional level, the kingdom is beset with a protracted war in Yemen and the ascendancy of its nemesis, Iran, as the Islamic Republic develops a Western-sanctioned nuclear project and moves proxies into the vacuum left by Islamic State. The recent ballistic missile attacks on Riyadh from Yemen, presumably aided by Iran, highlighted the kingdom’s vulnerability.

However, the Saudi king remains Custodian of Islam’s Two Holy Mosques, and the House of Saud is in a position to lead the Sunni, if not the Islamic, world. In the past, it seemed unlikely that this secretive kingdom, mired by medieval traditions, could undo the repressive patriarchy and institutionalized sexual discrimination that has become entrenched.

There is a potential for the empowerment of women and a curb on the spread of Wahhabi doctrine. In the spirit of the original, enlightened Arab Spring, the radical changes augur a more conducive environment for engagement with Saudi Arabia. MbS has requested global support for the reforms, but he must deliver on his promise for a “moderate Islam,” open society and the rule of law, in order to rally the international community and help his kingdom emerge from its oil-soaked chrysalis.

A version of this article was originally featured in The Spectator.

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