A Waft Of Cool Air In The Desert?
Social reforms and women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia
For the last few years, international media has been reporting wide-ranging social and economic reforms introduced by Saudi Arabia to transform the desert kingdom into a vibrant, forward-looking modern nation. A recent, month-long visit to Riyadh was an opportunity to witness some of these changes.
This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia attempted to introduce reforms. Saudi society was changing even under the previous king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. However, the pace has gained momentum since the release of the document “Vision 2030” by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on April 25 2016.
It encompasses all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, is bold as well as ambitious. Among other objectives, it seeks to turn the country into a “global investment powerhouse” and use its unique geostrategic location to make it a hub for international trade and a gateway to three continents – Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Saudi Arabia has been a conservative country, strictly following the tenets of Islamic scriptures as interpreted by the orthodox Wahabi School. Vision 2030 re-emphasises Sharia as the basis of Saudi Arabia’s social and religious life. Yet, in an interview with CBS in September 2018, the Crown Prince said that he wanted Saudi Arabia to return to the way it was before 1979.
The ‘Arab Times’ quotes him clarifying, “We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars. There were movie theatres in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”
As a first step following the announcement of Vision 2030, the King clipped the wings of the all-powerful Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, popularly known as the Moral or Religious Police. They had been a virtual law unto themselves and, in a few cases, had been suspected to be responsible for forced disappearances and even deaths of alleged violators of religious norms.
By a Royal Decree, the Committee was specifically debarred from pursuing, questioning, asking for identification, arresting, and detaining anyone suspected of a crime. In one sweep, says the ‘Arab Times’, “the fears that had for so long stopped Saudis from thinking outside the box were done away with.” Besides easing social restrictions for Saudi citizens, especially women in public spaces, this made way for economic liberalisation too.
Next came the removal of the ban on women driving motor vehicles and the abolition of the law that made it compulsory for women to be always under the care of a male ‘guardian.’ Newspapers and magazines across the world flashed happy faces of traditionally but fashionably dressed Saudi women behind the steering wheels of motor cars.
During my stay in Riyadh, I saw many Saudi women driving, and hardly anyone – except for tourists like me – took any particular notice.
More significant than women driving cars or the relaxed dress codes are reforms in the guardianship system. Women no longer require the consent of a male guardian (usually father, husband, or brother) for taking important life decisions.
Changes have been implemented to grant women liberty in matters such as travel, education, and healthcare, reducing their dependence on male consent. They can now apply for and get passports to travel abroad unescorted by a male relative.
In the political sphere, women have been granted the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections. This is a significant step towards ensuring women’s participation in public life.
Several women have, since then, been elected to municipal councils to play active roles in local governance. In September 2022, for the first time, Saudi Arabia appointed a woman, Dr Hala al-Tuwaijri, as head of its Human Rights Commission with the rank of a minister. This, in the context of Saudi Arabia, is not a mean achievement.
Music has been sternly frowned upon in Saudi Arabia for years because of religious reasons. That changed too, and post-2016 some high-profile international concerts were held for a mixed audience at Ad-Diriyah – the renovated ancient capital that has become one of the popular happening places in Riyadh.
Music is now allowed to be played inside the house, in cars and at restaurants without disturbing others.
While dining at a restaurant at the huge “Riyadh Front” – a combination of a mall, restaurants, and a large convention centre – our attention was drawn to the music emanating from another restaurant where members of a Saudi family were celebrating the birthday of one of them. The segregation of ‘family’ and single males at restaurants has also been done away with.
In April 2018, ending a 35-year ban, the screening of commercial movies was reintroduced in Riyadh. Three years later, in 2021, Jeddah hosted the Red Sea International Film Festival where big names in Arab cinema, Hollywood and Bollywood graced the red carpet.
It will be wrong to assume that the relaxation of the strict dress code for Saudi women in public has led to their giving up their traditional attire which covers the head and body. They have been used to it for a very long time and it is natural that the effect of the relaxation will take some time to be perceptible.
However, these days, some young women in Riyadh are seen to be less conservatively dressed than before. But, in general, the body cover – Abaya – is worn by most Saudi women, with the exception of tourists. Yet, the sense of ‘freedom’ is palpable in the free movement of unescorted women in malls, markets, and other places.
From outside Saudi Arabia, these reforms may look small and insignificant. However, for a country that kept its womenfolk under myriads of restrictions for years, these are remarkable and life-changing reforms.
In fact, the small steps taken by the Saudi Government under the direction of the Crown Prince are seen by many as moves that “are changing everything without touching anything.”
While women have started enjoying more social freedom since the reforms began, its economic impact is also quite remarkable. Lifting restrictions on women and giving them greater equality and opportunity have clearly expanded the workforce and increased productivity.
The impact is visible in different sectors of the economy, particularly tourism, small and medium enterprises, healthcare, and education. Women working side by side with men in these sectors is something that has changed the ‘landscape.’ During visits to restaurants, malls, and museums I found Saudi women were helping customers and visitors with perfect ease and great efficiency.
According to available data, since the launch of Vision 2030, there has been a significant rise in the participation of female labour in economic activities from 17 per cent in 2017 to 36 per cent in 2022. During the same period, the female unemployment rate also declined from 33 percent to 10 percent.
Women’s income has risen and the disparity in pay of male and female employees has declined. As more and more women are becoming financially independent, there is a rise in the number of dual-income households with higher purchasing power, and that fuels the economy.
There are complaints, mainly from activist groups working for women’s emancipation, that these reforms are not enough, and that women are still in shackles and under male domination in many ways. They point out that in spite of the much-hyped social changes, many women activists who had actually fought for those changes, are languishing in jail.
Activists accuse the Saudi Arabian government of duplicity. They say, despite the implementation of Vision 2030, an economic and social reform blueprint that includes measures to increase women’s rights and participation in society, the government remains opposed to any criticism or dissent.
There seems to be an apparent contradiction in the continued incarceration of Manahel al-Otaibi, a prominent women’s rights activist who was originally arrested for challenging the country’s male guardianship laws and the requirement for women to wear a body-shrouding Abaya, although both these requirements have since been considerably relaxed.
Reportedly, she has now been accused of “defaming the kingdom at home and abroad, calling for rebellion against public order and society’s traditions and customs, and challenging the judiciary and its justice.”
Some Western analysts have said that while Vision 2030 is laudable, and certain actions taken in pursuance of it are promising, social liberalisation and economic reforms are not going hand in hand with political reforms. They point out that, in fact, political control in Saudi Arabia is becoming more centralised even within the royal family.
What they mean, perhaps, is that behind all the reforms there is a design to strengthen the position of the Crown Prince and project him as the face of a modern, powerful Saudi Arabia which would like to play a meaningful role in the region as well as the world at large.
One fact that should never be lost sight of is that Saudi Arabia remains a monarchy. The reforms’ aims do not include any changes to its political structure.
While the sharp edges of religious conservatism may slowly be allowed to become more rounded, thereby fulfilling the Crown Prince’s wish to make the socio-religious structure of the Kingdom more moderate, there should be no illusion that any movement for political reforms is going to be allowed in Saudi Arabia.
It is likely to remain in the foreseeable future an Islamic Kingdom with a more modern outlook and a futuristic vision. However, with the genie of reforms out of the bottle, only the future will tell what it may lead to.
Sandip Mitra retired from the Indian Foreign Service. Views expressed here are the writer’s own.
Cover Photograph sourced from The Arab Weekly.