Aisha Bint Abdullah

Aisha Bint Abdullah

Journalist

How MBS reformed Saudi women’s status quo in one year

Exactly a year ago, on June 11, 2017, Saudi women would see the tides change, rewind and reverse what seemed to be a rather inflexible status quo on their rights and roles. On this day last year, Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS, as he is known – took the helm in Saudi Arabia, and with this leadership role, embarked on a mammoth reformative plan for life in the Kingdom, under the country’s National Vision 2030. Saudi women’s state of affairs was his and the plan’s top priority.

In less than 12 months, the young prince reinstated rights for Saudi women they had been deprived for years and decades. The goal, of course, was not merely to even out the legislative gender balance, but rather, a longer-term vision of tipping the scale in Saudi’s socioeconomic balance toward women as key and active members and contributors.

The driving force

In September 2017, only a few months into his new leadership role, the Crown Prince issued a historic decree lifting an enduring ban on Saudi women driving in the Kingdom. The decree stipulated the equality of men and women before traffic laws, systems and regulations in the country with no exceptions – including the issuance of driver’s licenses.

It was a radical move but, equally, a statement to the new leadership’s firm stance and grip on gender equality reforms across sectors in Saudi Arabia. The divisive, but mostly welcome decision was at the center of both local and international media headlines; it almost singlehandedly – and almost overnight – reshaped public perception and opinion on Saudi affairs, and sparked hope and debates among Saudi women themselves.

Many speculated on the application of this decree within the set timeline, and equally, on the many barriers conceding to it. In response, Saudi leadership wasted no time, immediately assembling governmental taskforces for processes and prep works for women to obtain their driving licenses; at the top of which were those equipping the country’s future female drivers with the training and education they needed.

The efforts paid off. Earlier this month, the first nine Saudi women obtained the national driver’s license after they converted their foreign licenses, in a historic move by the Saudi General Traffic Department in anticipation of the decree coming into effect on June 24.

Leading roles

The Crown Prince’s decree did not act alone in showing the Kingdom’s serious commitment to Saudi women. It was part of a much larger plan that, focally, aimed at empowering Saudi female professionals toward high-level, male-dominated fields and leadership roles – a statement to its belief in competence over gender at the top of the hierarchy.

Fatemah Baashen’s appointment is one such example. Last September, Baashen was appointed as a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington. She would become the first Saudi woman to speak on behalf of a governmental institution. Saudi businesswoman Nashwa Al-Taher, who was appointed as an honorary consul to the Netherlands, is another prominent Saudi figure in the global and local economic and diplomatic arenas.

Joining Baashen and Al-Taher in the league of Saudi Arabia’s power women, Tamader Al Rammah was the first Saudi woman to be appointed as deputy minister in February 2018 – taking on this role at the Ministry of Labor and Social Development. In May 2018, would follow the unanimous board decision appointing Nouf bint Abdullah Al-Rakan to the role of CEO at the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security, Programming and Drones (SAFCSP).

The change is not only at the top. In April this year, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Justice issued 59 law practice licenses for Saudi women for 2018 – alone, this number accounted for more than a quarter of the total licenses granted for female lawyers over the few earlier years. This, in addition to broadening scopes and jobs for Saudi women across General Prosecution and military ranks, including border guard, customs, prison and traffic roles and jobs.

Also in April, the 2018 Arab Summit in Dhahran was a show of force for Saudi women, 30 of whom took on central roles in organizing the event, from delegation logistics, to media relations and coverage.

The internal support and push for Saudi women had a ripple effect on their international successes and stature; like, mostly recently, the appointment of Saudi Tamader Al Rammah and Basmah bint Abdulaziz Al-Mayman have to high-level international roles.

Al Rammah, an accomplished businesswoman and currently, the Saudi deputy minister of Labor and Social development, was elected to the board of the United Nations’ CEDWA’s specialized committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  

Meanwhile, Basmah bint Abdulaziz Al-Mayman, chairwoman at Global United Centre for Research and Analysis and director at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), was also assigned to the role of the UNWTO’s (United Nations World Tourism Organization) regional director for the Middle East. She is the first Saudi and GCC official to take on this high-level role at the organization.

Legal win

As these developments unfolded, the Crown Prince reaffirmed to the media and the public that the leadership’s decision pertaining to women’s rights were not haphazard. Rather, they tackled legislative reforms aimed at improving women’s state of affairs, and granting them more independence and mobility on both a sociocultural and economic level.

To this end, a royal decree was also issued this year obliging governmental agencies to provide all their services to Saudi women sans guardian consent, unless there is a legal basis for this consent in provisioned by Islamic Shariah.

The decision was circulated to all concerned governmental bodies without exception, and immediately impacted the day-to-day lives of Saudi women; in February, the Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Investment announced that processes to register and license businesses for Saudi women without the consent of their guardian had already begun.

The change was felt by younger Saudi women, too, with the Kingdom’s top brass universities, including the King Saud University in Riyadh, opening up their rules on the mobility of female students. At the time, King Saud university was reported to have issued a decree allowing female students to leave university premises without their guardian’s permission – and two hours ahead of the usual 11 am schedule, at that.

Moreover, Saudi women were also allowed entry into sports and artistic events without the presence of their guardian, and access to sports stadiums and concerts once reserved to men and families only.

Legal reforms also trickled down to Saudi women’s personal affairs. The Saudi Ministry of Justice and the Higher Council of Justice jointly approved a slew of processes and legislative principles supporting married women and foster mothers, particularly in order to protect the family unit and women themselves in cases of separation – amendments that had been long anticipated by Saudi women.

Among these principles is that advocating women’s right to annul a marriage contract in situations of irreconcilable differences or intolerable living situations and conditions, and to preemptively obtain a copy of this contract to know their full rights. Amendments were also made in support of facilitating processes for foster mothers and children.

Power in faith

On more than one occasion, Prince Mohammed bin Salman emphasized on the Kingdom’s firm belief in Saudi women’s potential and empowerment through all means possible, in order to help them regain their Islam-given rights.

Saudi Arabia’s recent reformative actions on women’s stature and status were not merely isolated standalone moves, but rather, part of a more visionary and longer term course of action by the Kingdom, he affirmed.

During his world press and foreign tours, the Crown prince said that the Kingdom’s come a long way on women empowerment in less than a year. Talking to CBS News, he said that despite the fact that Saudi women “still have not received their full rights”, the country has a “short way to go” on this front.

In another interview with The Atlantic, the prince made a strongly worded statement: “I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women,” adding that Islam did not discriminate between men and women, as many would presume or promote.

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