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Women in Saudi society press for change — some suffer despite successes

Women in Saudi society press for change — some suffer despite successes
© Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has been in the news in recent months, now that they can drive cars and watch sporting events and live entertainment. But according to an Amnesty International report released on Jan. 25, as well as other earlier reports, some of them are tortured and sexually-abused while in arbitrary detention by the Saudi government. The apparent sin of these victims was to be political activists, campaigners for the advances now enjoyed by the many.

Yet the issue of the treatment of Saudi women is wider than that, as the recent case of Rahaf Muhammad al-Qanun illustrates. The 18-year-old fled her family and flew to Bangkok, hoping to get to Australia. Thai officials allowed a Saudi diplomat to seize her passport but she held onto her cell phone, successfully organizing a campaign for asylum, alleging that her mother and brother had beaten her. Within days she was allowed to enter Canada, where she was personally greeted by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has been at diplomatic war with Riyadh since last summer, when the Saudis took exception to the Canadian official’s tweet expressing concern about human rights.

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Are the worrying reports mere aberrations in the reform plans of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or are they more deeply rooted? What constitutes progress in the kingdom sometimes is jaw-dropping. Earlier this month, the Saudi Ministry of Justice announced a measure to curtail the practice of men divorcing their wives without telling them. The divorce court now will send the ex-wife a text message! Women also can check their marital status on an official website.

The core of the debate appears to be that MbS, as the crown prince is widely known, wants all the credit for reforms in the country and does not want the appearance of popular action forcing change. This may be a modern version of the old-style Saudi society — that the father, grandfather or senior male in the family dictates how its members behave. If so, there may be a contradiction with the new reality emerging on the ground.

Popular opinion is reported to overwhelmingly favor MbS’s reforms. Anecdotally, this would seem correct. A recent visitor told me how amazed she had been, seeing the transformation in the social sphere in Riyadh since her previous visit. But whether this applies outside the main centers of urban prosperity and the under-30 age group is harder to measure. The aging King Salman holds a majlis (gathering) for religious leaders and other citizens on an almost monthly basis.  Bearded and white haired, none of them looks the type who would rush to see American singer Mariah Carey perform in Jeddah on Jan. 31.

After weeks of seemingly defensive caution following the Oct. 2, 2018, killing and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the kingdom again is playing offense, putting on a major effort at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told the Financial Times: “When this subject [the Khashoggi killing] came up among everyone we met, they said that they condemned what happened and expected those responsible be brought to justice. Without exception, though, nobody is pulling out or hesitating to continue [to work with us].”

But among Davos delegates, the FT reported “reactions to doing business with Saudi Arabia were mixed.” Opinions along the lines of “[in the] penalty box” or “too controversial” were matched against others who thought “the Khashoggi affair had been relegated to the past.” The divide may well hinge on a personal view of whether MbS knew of the murder plan.

Significant arbiters of the world’s view on Saudi Arabia may turn out to be non-Saudi women.  Despite the Saudi minister’s comments, the Khashoggi affair has had a wide impact. “Even my mother has heard of it,” a contact commented to me over lunch in Washington last week.  Prospective investors in the kingdom, particularly publicly-owned companies, may have to consider the reputational risk of putting their money on MbS.

And the pressure continues. Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, has announced her intent to visit Turkey next week to start an independent probe into what exactly happened to Khashoggi, whose body is still missing. MbS’s irritation could well be matched by boosted morale for Saudi women activists.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.