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Saudi Women Benefit from New Reforms, but Still Face an Uneven Playing Field


By Varsha Koduvayur

24th January 2018

Last week, women entered sports stadiums in Saudi Arabia for the first time to watch Jeddah-based soccer club al-Ahli thrash al-Batin by 5-0. A 25,000-strong crowd turned out to view the history-making event, a five-fold increase in comparison to al-Ahli’s previous game. The occasion signals Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to the kingdom’s reform trajectory, especially regarding increasing women’s access to public spaces and professional opportunities.

Since Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in June 2017, royal decrees have rapidly lifted key restrictions on women, including the much-maligned ban on driving, which will be removed in June 2018. Traffic authorities further specified that women will be allowed to operate commercial vehicles, ride motorcycles, and drive trucks. In addition, the first car showroom for female buyers opened earlier this month. The admission of women to sports stadiums was the result of another royal decree, and the government recently gave the green-light for foreign women who are above the age of 25 to enter the kingdom without a family member serving as chaperone. These changes follow an April 2016 decree that drastically curbed the powers of the feared religious police.

The move towards increasing autonomy for women is part of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan, whose purpose is to end the kingdom’s dependence on oil for its prosperity. Societal change is not explicit in Vision 2030: The plan outlines its intent to make women more productive members of society, but does not directly state goals for social reforms. Nonetheless, societal reforms are essential precursors to many of Vision 2030’s economic targets, such as raising women’s participation rate in the workforce from 22 to 30 percent. If women can drive, they can work, without the hassle and cost of hiring drivers. Even if women choose not to work, not needing to hire a driver will help families save money. Such reductions in household expenses can only be a good thing for the government’s attempts to cut welfare spending.

The scope and pace of recent changes are a salient demonstration of Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to reform, amidst doubts about the viability of the kingdom’s transformation plans. The prince is also asserting himself by going against the kingdom’s feared conservative clerical establishment, which has been hostile to reforms. Last October, he made unprecedentedly direct remarks in a challenge to the clerics. “We are only going back to how we were: to the tolerant, moderate Islam that is open to the world,” the prince said, adding, “we want to live a normal life.”

That message reflects the sentiments of Saudi Arabia’s youth bulge: two-thirds of its 22 million citizens are below age 30. The young royal is upending outdated practices to refashion his kingdom into a “vibrant society,” in the words of his Vision 2030 plan. There is a long way to go, however, before Saudi women can claim full parity with their male citizens. Most importantly, all Saudi women must still have a male guardian who approves major life decisions. Last May, King Salman decreed that government agencies cannot require the guardian’s consent for women seeking certain services, but it remains necessary for getting a marriage license or applying for a passport, among other things.

The U.S. has consistently criticized the kingdom’s treatment of minorities and women, but Saudi Arabia is finally implementing changes that Washington has long urged. Increased progress on the social front can serve to deepen U.S.-Saudi ties, as the U.S.’s most enduring and firm relations are those with nations that share its values.

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Gulf.