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Don’t Be Fooled by the Recent Reforms for Women in Saudi Arabia

 

On June 24th, Saudi Arabia lifted the ban against women driving, which was in place for over 25 years. This reform came just days after the one-year anniversary of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) rise to power. Since his ascension, the young prince has initiated widespread social and economic reformsthroughout the kingdom, many of which have addressed women’s rights. Despite the lift of the driving ban being a step in the right direction for women’s advancement in Saudi Arabia, the main reasoning behind it is purely economic based on MbS’ 2030 vision. Based on this vision, MbS wants to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil, and he promises to achieve this by taking steps to increase women’s participation into the Saudi workforce by 22 to 30%.

However, Saudi women still face a significant number of discriminatory policies that prevent them from achieving their full potential. Additionally, in the lead up to the reforms, the Saudi government arrested many women activistswho disagreed with the direction of such limited gender developments within the country. The United States should “name and shame” Saudi Arabia, one of its allies, into releasing the women activists and rescinding the allegations against them. As Saudi Arabia is unlikely to completely shift overnight in its overall treatment of women, MbS should take short-term actions to create more inclusivity for women, such as fewer regulations on women starting their own businesses. If MbS wants to achieve his 2030 visionfor the country, specifically the goal of transforming the economy with the incorporation of more women, he must begin to champion these courageous women and use them as allies.

A multitude of structural discriminatory policies infringe upon the basic rights of Saudi women, who constitute 42% of the country’s population, preventing them from obtaining full equality alongside their male counterparts. In fact, according to a recent poll, Thomas Reuters ranked Saudi Arabia as the fifth most dangerous country for women in the world, mainly because of its patriarchal societal norms. Some of these restrictive, archaic laws include a male guardianship systemand the inability of women to pass down their nationality to their children. As best described in an Al Jazeera opinion article, “a woman in Saudi Arabia is legally treated as a minor from cradle to grave; she needs consent of a male guardian to be able to study, travel, work, marry or obtain some official documents.” Even the lifting of the driving ban is not a complete equal opportunity for all Saudi women. The law so far has only allowed women with foreign permitsto be able to convert their current licenses from other countries. As of June 24th, an Interior Ministry spokesman estimated that only 120,000women applied for Saudi licenses out of an estimated 9 million eligible drivers. This further proves that the driving reform is not a genuine effort to incorporate more women into the workforce. Overall, women in Saudi Arabia experience life as second-class citizens, and the end of the driving ban is only a small step forward in terms of removing the discriminatory policies women face.

In spite of MbS’ attempt to portray himself as a modern leader committed to the human rights of his people, he has quietly detained activists and restricted the freedoms of citizens in the wake of these seemingly innovative reforms. Just weeks ahead of the lifting of the ban, the Kingdom arrested 11 leading Saudi women activistson counts of “communicating and cooperatingwith individuals and organizations hostile” to Saudi Arabia. Throughout the country and on social media, pictures of the arrested leaders went viral with text pasted across their photos reading “traitors” and “agents of embassies.”Some have suspected that MbS ordered the arrests to appealto the country’s ultraconservative demographic and religious leaders who have opposed these recent reforms. It is a great paradox that when women are finally getting into the driver’s seat, others are sitting in jailafter fighting for this right.

The United States and the United Nations should continue to demandthe release of the activists, as many of these women still remain behind bars. If MbS truly wants to transform the Saudi economy, he must use the untapped resources Saudi women present and expand the driving ban repeal to include all women. This will allow more women to enter the workforce, though many other reforms must occur in order for women to reach real equality. Women are a vital ally for MbS to make strides in achieving his goal of diversifying the Saudi economy.

When asked about Saudi women’s reforms compared to the West, MbS stated, “I just want to remind the world that American women had to wait long to get their right to vote. So we need time.” Even though we must praise driving ban repeal and other gender reforms, we must be concerned about the other restrictions on women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia, as well as the intense crackdown on women activists. This is the moment for MbS to form alliances with women activists in Saudi Arabia and continue to enact reforms for women so that he can be on the pathway of achieving his long-term goal of Vision 2030 for his country. It is 2018, and the time is now for Saudi women to experience full equality.

Renee Coulouris is a Master’s degree candidate at Johns Hopkins University, where she is studying Global Security Studies. She has previously worked at Women in International Security and in the Africa II Division of the Department of Political Affairs at the United Nations. Additionally, she has conducted research in an array of countries relating to international security, foreign policy, and women’s roles in extremist organizations.