Women’s rights key to kingdom’s future

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Our car slipped into the fast-moving traffic on a three-lane causeway slicing through the capital city. It picked up speed as we passed glinting corporate towers and upscale shopping malls reflecting Saudi Arabia’s affluence and its aspirations for modernity.

But we were heading directly into a clash with the reality behind this glassy image of modern life, which is the puritanical religious establishment and its hold over the House of Saud.

A woman was behind the wheel.

Here in Saudi Arabia, that’s forbidden. Women are banned from driving by a government-enforced religious decree. Saudi women also cannot vote. And under the kingdom’s “guardianship” system, they cannot go to university, work or leave the country without the permission of their father or husband.

Our defiant female driver at the wheel of the family Mercedes is a university lecturer in her 30s. Her husband rode shotgun in the front passenger seat. And I was in the back, with notebook and camera.

The couple was doing their part, they said, for the ongoing campaign to scrub Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers, flouting the ban to make a point: Women can and should be allowed to drive.

The woman, who requested anonymity to avoid harassment from officials and opponents of female drivers, said police were only doing their job if they spotted her and issued a ticket for not having a license.

“But if they try to take me to the police station, they have no right,” she added. “They also make some women sign a pledge not to drive again. I would never sign that. Never. They don’t have a right to make you sign a pledge. And there’s no law against me driving.”

The 20-minute expedition drew three reactions. A foreign woman smiled and gave a thumbs up. Two young Saudi men in a compact car pumped their arms approvingly out their windows then slowed down to let my friend overtake them. But two other young Saudi males in a Ford were not happy. The passenger hung out his window yelling “Hey! Hey!” and made a rude hand gesture as his friend feinted a swerve in front of our vehicle.

Back home, the couple’s 6-year-old son was asked about women driving in the kingdom and had this to say: “The people who own Saudi say ‘no’ but I want it to be ‘yes.’”

The encounter with a Saudi family captures Saudi Arabia’s two fundamental challenges in the post-9/11 era ahead: Modernizing its society so that women have equal rights with men. And modernizing its political structure so that when the 6-year-old is grown he feels that he — not an unelected, unaccountable royal family — ”owns” his country.


These overarching challenges are critical because they will likely require revisions in the House of Saud’s underlying theological doctrine that has given it legitimacy for decades in the eyes of the kingdom’s socially and religiously conservative population of 21 million.

There is an inherent contradiction between the officially sanctioned interpretation of Islam, commonly known as Wahhabism, and the state’s self-declared goal of transforming itself into a globally integrated, diversified knowledge-based economy. The rigid theological concepts promoted by the state, so integral to Saudi religious and cultural identity, also discourage close contact with non-Muslims, demand blind obedience to political rulers and foster inward, tribalistic tendencies, including the male guardianship system that deprives women of full, personal autonomy.

“The main problem in Saudi Arabia is that on the one hand, it wants to modernize, it wants to have good relations with the rest of the world, wants to engage in trade relations, wants to be part of the United Nations. But on the other hand, it has this ideological basis that is adamantly opposed to such a foreign policy, and to such an economic policy,” observed Joas Wagemakers of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, a scholar of modern Islamist groups.

“And as long as Saudi Arabia does not solve that dilemma, either through completely ditching Wahhabism or by completely ditching foreign relations, then it’s going to be confronted by radicals or extremists who are going to use the state’s own rhetoric against it.”

Mohsen Al Awajy, an Islamist dissident once jailed for his opposition activities, described the absolute monarchy’s dilemma in a 2010 interview. “The old guards in our religious organization are still calling to stick firmly with the teachings of [the 18th century Saudi religious reformer Mohammed] Abdulwahhab,” he said. “In reality, the royal family is no longer interested in that. But they could not say it publicly.

“As long as we have no constitution for the government, no national assembly elected by the people, no political parties, the royal family has no choice but to pretend, at least, that they are in good relations with the religious establishment,” he added. “They are in a critical situation by the way. They could not release their hands from the religious organization because their legitimacy is dependent on it … Everybody is saying that once this link is cut, they will find themselves kicked out — unless they establish a constitution for the country and this constitution is approved by the people.”

The task is not immediate in the sense of ‘must do tomorrow.’ And the Arab Spring’s rupture of the region’s status quo is not a clear and present danger to Saudi Arabia’s rulers. That is largely because the levels of economic discontent and political consciousness in the kingdom are nowhere near what they are in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain.

Rather, the Arab Spring has turned the hourglass of history upside down for the House of Saud, illuminating more vividly the nature of the challenges waiting down the road for the world’s largest oil producer. Ones that it still has time to address.

The question is: Will it face these challenges in time? History suggests that the Saudi monarchy, which has a keen and pragmatic sense of its own survival, has a steady eye on the hourglass. But history has a way of surprising, especially in these heady days of revolution and resistance in the Arab world.


Most Saudis say they support the monarchy, especially King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who is widely liked. They believe the monarchy preserves national unity and keeps separatist tendencies in check.

Instead, what most reformists are asking for is partnership between ruler and ruled, expressed as a constitutional monarchy with separation of powers.

As Riyadh businessman Turki F. Al Rasheed, whose pro-reform website is optimistically entitled “Saudi Elections,” says, the current system “just doesn’t work any more.”

“Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states should start to move more towards public participation. They cannot continue with a handful of family members running all the nodes of the entire country: the politics, the commerce, the security, the legal system … running every branch of the government,” he explained.

Fouad Al Farhan, 36, is a tech entrepreneur and influential blogger based in Jeddah whose Twitter motto is “democracy is the solution,” a clever play on the words of the Muslim Brotherhood slogan, “Islam is the solution.” In an interview earlier this year, he said that nobody “is calling to change the whole system here … But we are looking for more real civil society within the current system … which will lead someday to constitutional monarchy.”

But many Saudis are skeptical that the royal family is willing to share power.

“They will never accept this,” said Abdulaziz Al Gasim, a liberal Islamist attorney who was active in the opposition Sahwa movement of the 1990s. All the Gulf countries, he added, “think and plan for avoiding sharing power with people. This is the issue.”

But the Arab Spring has demonstrated that new forces are at work. “The people have new power, they can organize themselves, they can contact each other,” said Al Gasim. “They can share information more than the decision-makers because of social media, the internet, and the high education level they have.”

In addition, there are now more than 100,000 Saudis getting higher education in other countries — more than at any previous time in Saudi history. Almost one half, 47,000, are in the United States. “They will return with new aims, new standards, and new points of view about life, about their rights,” said Al Gasim.

Accustomed to generous financial benefits from the state, many Saudis are willing to forego political life, and civil society is weak. So even if there were a political will to share power, many reforms are needed to create a society ready to participate in its own governance, Saudis say.

Those reforms include:

*Permitting independent NGOs with greater latitude in free speech and free assembly

*Cracking down on corruption

*Reducing bureaucracy on the private sector so it can create the thousands of jobs necessary to deal with the surging youth population.

*Making the government more accountable and transparent, which will require reducing the secrecy that now surrounds its deliberations and decisions. This secrecy also is a severe impediment to the government’s goal of shifting from an oil- to a knowledge-based society

*Speeding up reform of the educational and judicial systems

*Reforming the administrative structure of government so that decisions and details are addressed at a more appropriate level, and authority is de-centralized. Right now, King Abdullah has far too much to do, causing near-paralysis at times in decision-making. For example, in July the Saudi Press Agency reported that the king had ordered a 50 percent increase in cattle feed subsidies and mandated stricter monitoring of fodder market prices.

*Adding younger blood to a government dominated by old-timers. Revealingly, one petition asking for political reforms last February demanded a new cabinet in which ministers’ average age would be 40.

Jamal Khashoggi, former newspaper editor and now head of an all-news satellite television station that is in development, said Saudis “still have hopes in King Abdullah, they see that he can make change … I think this monarchy can reform itself … because we talk with them, they engage with us.”

That doesn’t mean that Khashoggi is happy with the pace of reform, which he feels has been impeded because “the government is doing too much appeasement and coddling to the religious establishment — for no good reason.” When it comes to government policies, he added, “the economy should be the driving force in Saudi Arabia instead of what [religious officials deem] is right and wrong.”

In the decade ahead, Khashoggi said it is possible that members of the advisory body, the Shura Council, will be elected but he does not foresee a constitutional monarchy “in which we will elect our prime minister. I don’t see that happening.”

Women work as cashiers at a Jeddah market, a pioneering step in a society where women are rarely given male permission to take active community roles. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

Still, Saudi Arabia “is going through a huge transformation, and it’s not going to stop,” says Khashoggi. “Besides the effect of the Arab Spring, which is going to affect us for a long time, there is also transformation from within … Maybe in a few years time we will have a king who is a graduate of an American school. That will have an effect.”


Women’s rights may be an even harder reform nut to crack because the role of women in Saudi society has become a litmus test for the government among religious conservatives.

The guardianship system, which allows a male relative to decide who a woman can marry, whether she can work, attend university, travel abroad and even in some instances have surgery, is deeply entrenched in the tribal customs of Saudi society. Although Saudi religious officials have given it a sacred veneer by claiming that it conforms with Islamic scriptures, the system defies mainstream Islamic interpretations, which give Muslim women a high degree of individual autonomy.

“The new generation is very, very angry about the situation of women because we feel they are treating us as slaves,” said Khulood Al Fahad, 33, who was active in an [unsuccessful] campaign to get women the right to vote in municipal elections set to be held this month. “The government, men, they are not respecting Saudi women.”

The country’s strict gender segregation in public places and work environments is also going to be hard to change. When an official of the religious police in Mecca announced that he could not find a scriptural basis for the segregation, he was ostracized and ultimately suspended.

The campaign against the ban on female drivers, which officially began June 17 when over 60 Saudi women individually went out for a drive, was partly inspired by the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo.

King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan with Saudi women in the southwestern city of Najran. (Getty)

Organizers effectively used Facebook and Twitter to announce and sustain the campaign, and they say it will continue until the ban is lifted. The government has hinted that it will do just that. In many cases, policemen have let women drivers go with a verbal warning, contrary to past practice when they were taken to police stations until their male guardians fetched them.

The campaign has caught on largely because of Saudi women’s belief that it is their right to drive. And this has grown out of female education, which began in the 1960s and led to ever larger numbers of women attending university. Today, more than half of the country’s college students are female.

Earlier this year, King Abdullah formally inaugurated Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, a 2,000-acre campus north of Riyadh with its own mosque, athletic facilities and tramway — which will be driven by women. It will be the world’s largest all-female university, eventually accommodating up to 40,000 students. A social revolution in the making.

“The future of this country will be determined by women,” said human rights activist Mohammad Al Qahtani. “They will emerge from the shadow of society to take center stage.”


The government’s ultimate stance on all these issues will depend in large part on the outcome of the succession struggle already underway within the royal family. For months now, Saudis believe, factions have been negotiating furiously behind the scenes as mortality knocks at the door of the two most senior officials, the king and the crown prince.

While nothing is certain, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the second deputy prime minister and long-standing interior minister, is widely expected to be the next Saudi king. This raises anxiety in many Saudis because of his reputation as a conservative comfortable with the religious establishment exerting strong control over social life — a role degraded in recent years under King Abdullah.

Women suffer most from the religious control of society. But they are no longer silent, as before.

It was, in fact, a woman who gave one of the most outspoken recent warnings of the need for change in Saudi Arabia.

Princess Basma, a daughter of King Saud, who ruled the kingdom in the early 1960s, said, “No one is immune from the seasonal geographical winds of change that are sweeping our Arab homeland. Those who say we are immune are wrong.”

Speaking in a June interview with BBC Arabic TV, she added: “Everyone should heed and must be aware that we must open national dialogue on the table and not wait for the challenges to grow. Let us grant freedom before it turns into challenge.”

(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California’s Knight Program in Media and Religion.)