Why is Saudi Arabia under attack on women’s issues?
If people in Saudi Arabia were asked to give their opinion of the best government service, the Absher app would probably be named by many of its 11 million users, who include about 5 million women.
Targeting the app for criticism is not about defending women or helping to improve their situation in the Kingdom; it is nothing more than a political campaign. The focus on women’s issues in Saudi Arabia is clearly politically motivated, at this time in particular, when their situation has been improving dramatically. They have been given greater rights, a higher status in Saudi society, and are being included in the wider process of change in a way the Kingdom has never witnessed before.
This, of course, does not mean that women do not deserve further reforms in legislation, but what has been accomplished in only three years is amazing by Saudi standards, and there is more to come.
Why is the topic of women’s rights, in particular, being used to attack the Saudi government?
Well, there are a number of reasons. For a start, the call for democracy in the Middle East is no longer the hot issue in the Western media that it once was. This is because of the disappointing democratic choices made by people in the region, which gave rise to extremist religious or nationalist regimes, and because democracy has become an easy way to fabricate legitimacy.
Moreover, Islamic political groups have lost their luster in the West, where most civil powers have withdrawn their support for such groups after discovering their hypocrisy, and realizing that they use two forms of rhetoric: One for the West and another for the local audience in Islamic countries. The latter is based on hatred, exclusion and domination, and hence has little in common with the Western concept of democracy.
The fact is that the Saudi government’s bet on the success of an increased role for women runs parallel to its opponents betting on failure
The brands of “democracy” in places such as Iran, Sudan and Gaza have proven to be simply a ladder that has enabled holders of fascist religious ideas to rise to power. That is why Islamic groups in the West have changed their tactics, abandoning their political issues after being exposed. Instead, they are now adopting popular issues, such as defending women’s rights, when, in fact, they disrespect women.
On the Saudi side of the issue, three years ago there was an important, historic change that caused many Westerners, including diplomats, media professionals and academics, to seriously deliberate the “social revolution” in Saudi Arabia. This came after the announcement of Vision 2030 in April 2016, which led those to question the wisdom of the Saudi government’s adoption of such far-reaching social transformation at such a rapid pace and, in particular, the opening up of more parts of Saudi society to women.
The fact is that the Saudi government’s bet on the success of an increased role for women runs parallel to its opponents betting on failure. Critics have long believed that the Kingdom, known as one of the most conservative societies in the world, would never embrace reforms, openness and change, especially for women.
They were wrong. A visit to any mall in Saudi Arabia, for example, reveals that most of the shop assistants are now women. This is a new development, one that would have seemed almost impossible only three years ago. Such a step has been supported by the development of legislations such as: The introduction of a system of penalties for sexual harassment, the elimination of the religious police system that allowed for the domination and harassment of women, and new rules that make the employment of women possible and simple. Laws were introduced to make it more difficult to employ non-Saudis, so that women, in particular, would have more job opportunities. So far, Saudi women have taken up more than 120,000 jobs in the retail sector alone.
Furthermore, reforms have also included the opening up of education to women in areas that were previously closed to them. In recent years, the government has also placed women in senior positions, a 50-year-old ban on women driving was abolished, and state television is now broadcasting inspirational stories of women daring to enter new fields and embark on newly available careers such as pilots, architects, and even rocket scientists. Football stadiums and concert venues have also been opened up to women.
These are the government successes that opposition groups want to discredit. Islamist voices, particularly the ones that raise the banner of Saudi women’s rights, are the last who should protest, as they are the last defenders of women’s rights anywhere in the world. Here, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the Kingdom’s enemies, such as Qatar, who would latch on to anyone at odds with Riyadh in order to launch campaigns against Saudi Arabia.
They are now focusing on the issue of women, at this particular time, because they know that it attracts the attention of human rights organizations in the West and quickly finds resonance in the media. They reckon that, through such a campaign, they might be able to distort the Saudi government’s best achievements.
It may be possible to criticize the Saudi government in some areas, such as democracy or freedom of expression, but most certainly not women’s rights and empowerment. This is an issue that deserves particular recognition, encouragement and acknowledgment for the great reforms and achievements accomplished so far.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.Twitter: @aalrashed