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Saudi Arabia: More freedom for women, but is the nation ready?

Insights2018-03-05

Nada Qahtani and the seven women with her gathered expectantly in the atrium of the National Museum. Draped in black abayas, their faces shielded by masks that left only their eyes exposed, the group had not seen the building before and knew little about what was inside. A giant new poster of one of Saudi Arabia’s ancient sites covered most of a wall ahead. And a collection of artefacts, predating the Islamic era, took pride of place inside the entrance. “There are two idols there,” said a museum attendant, pointing to an exhibition that would have been unthinkable in recent decades, when the country’s archaeological past was at best ignored, and often disavowed. “The rest are now being displayed in Japan.” Once gatekeepers of a culture that regarded anything before the life of the Muslim prophet as a time of ignorance, the attendants were ushering in a new era that embraced – not eschewed – the region’s long history. In November, when the larger exhibition was opened, many feared that openly displaying artefacts regarded by some as idolatry would lead to a backlash. To the relief of many, the response has largely been positive. “I was afraid,” said art historian Maha al-Sinan. “I did not know what people’s reaction would be. Especially since they were shown to the public for the first time. Religious beliefs have become related to social ideas. There was a need to spread awareness about what those idols really represent. Not each and every one was to be worshipped like a god. People are now driving this change and wanting us to recognise it.” Qahtani, 26, was just as enthusiastic. “For us as a young generation, we need to know the history of our region,” she said. “We are deeply rooted here. And comprehending our historical identity matters to us.” Saudi women will legally be allowed to drive from June this year. Outside the museum, understanding how the modern kingdom got to this point is also in vogue. For the past three months, political leaders have proclaimed – often to sceptical audiences – that acknowledging the country’s past is central to shaping its future. Discussions about history, archaeology and culture have become part of the Saudi lexicon. So, too, have other former taboos, such as individual liberties – and a national identity that has taken on dimensions beyond Islam. Slowly a view is taking hold that real change is taking place in a kingdom renowned for resistance to anything new. But the pace of the reform programme, introduced by the crown prince and heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, has left many in the kingdom bewildered. Last month alone, women were told they could join the military and the intelligence service. Driving schools will soon open for women who can legally take to the roads on their own in June. Sports arenas have opened to females and cinemas are being built and reopened across the country. And in a move that has startled many, a senior cleric recently decreed that wearing an abaya was not obligatory under Islam, and should be regarded as a personal choice. “Most of what we know is Islamic culture. It’s important that there is something beyond that,” said Qahtani. “The way we Saudis were is not something we should hide from.” Her purple trainers protruding from her robe, Qahtani said she welcomed the abaya decree, especially the bit about choice. “There was no- one forcing us to wear this in Islam,” she said, ignoring the fact that women who did not abide by the rigid dress code would probably have been whipped by the religious police. “For me this is a choice, it is part of my identity.” Inside the museum Abdullah, a visitor from Mecca, said wearing the abaya was obligatory. Standing next to him, his sister and niece, both covered from head to toe, agreed. New cultural values were one thing, but personal codes another. “And this is where they are going to run into resistance,” said a Riyadh-based diplomat. “Just how much support there is out there to a reform programme that genuinely is revolutionary is very tough to gauge.” Nearly one year into his reign as the kingdom’s strongman, Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated his authority through a change agenda that has been so rapid it has muted those who might otherwise have warned against it. At the same time he has sidelined clerics he deems to have been unsupportive, and ousted rival royals who may have had a claim on the throne. A woman sells painted coffee cups during a cultural heritage festival near Riyadh. His heady rise will be recognised in London this week when the young crown prince will meet the Queen on his first foreign visit since his father, King Salman, dismissed his cousin, Mohammad bin Nayef, to give him a clear run at the monarchy. The reception awaiting the crown prince is that of both heir and de facto leader. “There is a lot to get behind,” said a senior British official. “The domestic agenda is real. But he has some issues on the regional front. And he needs to be careful who he listens to.” Saudi Arabia remains embroiled in three regional conflicts – a war in Yemen, a standoff with Qatar, and a feud with Lebanon’s leader, Saad Hariri – all ignited by Prince Mohammed. The conflicts have roots in Saudi perceptions that the regional rival, Iran, has used all three arenas to advance its agenda. Across Riyadh, and in parts of the Middle East, the crown prince has been accused of unwittingly driving all three countries further into the hands of Iran. “He doesn’t yet know how to lead,” said one leading Riyadh businessman. “But he will get there, hopefully.” Across the Saudi capital for the past three months, the talk has been the goings-on in the Ritz Carlton hotel, where titans of industry, executives and politicians had been detained, facing graft charges. Hailed by Prince Mohammed as a corruption purge, and a marker of a new, more transparent business environment in a society keen to attract international capital, it was instead labelled by his critics as a blatant power grab. One senior regional official described the episode, which ended in mid-February with several dozen detainees from an original list of close to 300 being transferred to a prison, as “a bit about all three” – first, a more transparent way of doing business globally; second, recouping assets and cash lost over decades of industrial-scale graft; third, eliminating what remained of Prince Mohammed’s rivals. “How he will emerge from all of this is yet to be written,” said another senior official. Also uncertain is how a conservative society, unused to upsets, will emerge from such regular bouts of shock therapy. With announcements about the latest reforms being made almost daily, there is a fear that “the system” may derail momentum. “There are many at medium levels of the bureaucracy who do not want to see women in the workplace, or on the streets,” said a senior military officer. “They know that the best way to stop this is not to appear to defy the rulers, but not do their bidding either. Any real change here will take a lot more than one guy saying it, no matter how strong he is.” On Riyadh’s streets, a half-finished metro network and a half-finished financial centre suggest the gap between ambition and realisation remained vast. “Prices have more than doubled this past nine months,” said Mahmoud Azzam, a city driver. “If business doesn’t start to increase, that’s when you’ll see whether these reforms succeed or fail.” (GUARDIAN)

Nada Qahtani and the seven women with her gathered expectantly in the atrium of the National Museum. Draped in black abayas, their faces shielded by masks that left only their eyes exposed, the group had not seen the building before and knew little about what was inside.

A giant new poster of one of Saudi Arabia’s ancient sites covered most of a wall ahead. And a collection of artefacts, predating the Islamic era, took pride of place inside the entrance. “There are two idols there,” said a museum attendant, pointing to an exhibition that would have been unthinkable in recent decades, when the country’s archaeological past was at best ignored, and often disavowed. “The rest are now being displayed in Japan.”

Once gatekeepers of a culture that regarded anything before the life of the Muslim prophet as a time of ignorance, the attendants were ushering in a new era that embraced – not eschewed – the region’s long history. In November, when the larger exhibition was opened, many feared that openly displaying artefacts regarded by some as idolatry would lead to a backlash. To the relief of many, the response has largely been positive.

“I was afraid,” said art historian Maha al-Sinan. “I did not know what people’s reaction would be. Especially since they were shown to the public for the first time. Religious beliefs have become related to social ideas. There was a need to spread awareness about what those idols really represent. Not each and every one was to be worshipped like a god. People are now driving this change and wanting us to recognise it.”

Qahtani, 26, was just as enthusiastic. “For us as a young generation, we need to know the history of our region,” she said. “We are deeply rooted here. And comprehending our historical identity matters to us.”

 Saudi women will legally be allowed to drive from June this year.

Saudi women will legally be allowed to drive from June this year.

Outside the museum, understanding how the modern kingdom got to this point is also in vogue. For the past three months, political leaders have proclaimed – often to sceptical audiences – that acknowledging the country’s past is central to shaping its future. Discussions about history, archaeology and culture have become part of the Saudi lexicon. So, too, have other former taboos, such as individual liberties – and a national identity that has taken on dimensions beyond Islam.

Slowly a view is taking hold that real change is taking place in a kingdom renowned for resistance to anything new. But the pace of the reform programme, introduced by the crown prince and heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, has left many in the kingdom bewildered.

Last month alone, women were told they could join the military and the intelligence service. Driving schools will soon open for women who can legally take to the roads on their own in June. Sports arenas have opened to females and cinemas are being built and reopened across the country. And in a move that has startled many, a senior cleric recently decreed that wearing an abaya was not obligatory under Islam, and should be regarded as a personal choice.

“Most of what we know is Islamic culture. It’s important that there is something beyond that,” said Qahtani. “The way we Saudis were is not something we should hide from.”

Her purple trainers protruding from her robe, Qahtani said she welcomed the abaya decree, especially the bit about choice. “There was no- one forcing us to wear this in Islam,” she said, ignoring the fact that women who did not abide by the rigid dress code would probably have been whipped by the religious police. “For me this is a choice, it is part of my identity.”

Inside the museum Abdullah, a visitor from Mecca, said wearing the abaya was obligatory. Standing next to him, his sister and niece, both covered from head to toe, agreed. New cultural values were one thing, but personal codes another.

“And this is where they are going to run into resistance,” said a Riyadh-based diplomat. “Just how much support there is out there to a reform programme that genuinely is revolutionary is very tough to gauge.”

Nearly one year into his reign as the kingdom’s strongman, Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated his authority through a change agenda that has been so rapid it has muted those who might otherwise have warned against it. At the same time he has sidelined clerics he deems to have been unsupportive, and ousted rival royals who may have had a claim on the throne.

A woman sells painted coffee cups during a 
cultural heritage festival near Riyadh.

A woman sells painted coffee cups during a cultural heritage festival near Riyadh.

His heady rise will be recognised in London this week when the young crown prince will meet the Queen on his first foreign visit since his father, King Salman, dismissed his cousin, Mohammad bin Nayef, to give him a clear run at the monarchy. The reception awaiting the crown prince is that of both heir and de facto leader. “There is a lot to get behind,” said a senior British official. “The domestic agenda is real. But he has some issues on the regional front. And he needs to be careful who he listens to.”

Saudi Arabia remains embroiled in three regional conflicts – a war in Yemen, a standoff with Qatar, and a feud with Lebanon’s leader, Saad Hariri – all ignited by Prince Mohammed. The conflicts have roots in Saudi perceptions that the regional rival, Iran, has used all three arenas to advance its agenda. Across Riyadh, and in parts of the Middle East, the crown prince has been accused of unwittingly driving all three countries further into the hands of Iran.

“He doesn’t yet know how to lead,” said one leading Riyadh businessman. “But he will get there, hopefully.”

Across the Saudi capital for the past three months, the talk has been the goings-on in the Ritz Carlton hotel, where titans of industry, executives and politicians had been detained, facing graft charges. Hailed by Prince Mohammed as a corruption purge, and a marker of a new, more transparent business environment in a society keen to attract international capital, it was instead labelled by his critics as a blatant power grab.

One senior regional official described the episode, which ended in mid-February with several dozen detainees from an original list of close to 300 being transferred to a prison, as “a bit about all three” – first, a more transparent way of doing business globally; second, recouping assets and cash lost over decades of industrial-scale graft; third, eliminating what remained of Prince Mohammed’s rivals. “How he will emerge from all of this is yet to be written,” said another senior official.

Also uncertain is how a conservative society, unused to upsets, will emerge from such regular bouts of shock therapy. With announcements about the latest reforms being made almost daily, there is a fear that “the system” may derail momentum.

“There are many at medium levels of the bureaucracy who do not want to see women in the workplace, or on the streets,” said a senior military officer. “They know that the best way to stop this is not to appear to defy the rulers, but not do their bidding either. Any real change here will take a lot more than one guy saying it, no matter how strong he is.”

On Riyadh’s streets, a half-finished metro network and a half-finished financial centre suggest the gap between ambition and realisation remained vast. “Prices have more than doubled this past nine months,” said Mahmoud Azzam, a city driver. “If business doesn’t start to increase, that’s when you’ll see whether these reforms succeed or fail.”

(GUARDIAN)

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