By Steve Kelman
I am currently in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, for a conference on modernizing and reforming the nation’s government. And modernisation is an interesting thing in a country where many features of its society are more or less unique in the world.
Riyadh has its own feel. Although a city of 4 million, it has only a handful of modern skyscrapers. Most buildings are two to eight stories tall — usually, rectangular sand-color constructions, though sometimes in metal and glass. Most of the city has a light brownish rocky terrain, with little vegetation except occasional hardscrabble, although one sees neither sand nor any other classic signs of the desert. There are Western-style malls and shopping strips everywhere, with a wide variety of U.S. restaurant brands, including a several new Shake Shack outlets.
The day I arrived there were two big stories about the country in the news here. One was that President Donald Trump’s first foreign visit would be to Saudi Arabia, a testimony to the country’s huge oil wealth, regional power in the Middle East and geopolitical significance. (U.S.-Saudi ties are longstanding, but China buys a great deal of Saudi oil and is quite influential here.)
The second story announced a royal decree aimed at loosening the country’s unique “guardianship” system, existing nowhere else in the Muslim world, that requires a woman to get the written permission of a male “guardian” (husband or brother) before, for example, taking a job, opening a bank account, or receiving medical treatment.
“Guardianship” is part of a web of laws and customs that have kept woman separate from and subordinate to men ever since an austere eighteenth-century religious reformer, who wanted to purify Islam somewhat along the lines of Puritanism in the founding of Boston, entered into an alliance with the al-Saud family that controlled a portion of the Arabian peninsula and eventually conquered all of what is now Saudi Arabia.
That Saudi brand of Islam featured opposition to singing, a view that photographs and movies were idolatrous (even today, the country has no public movie theaters), and a segregation of women that was very strict even by Islamic standards. Married women typically stayed at home, and if they went outside wore only black and had their faces completely covered except for an eye slit. In public places such as stores and restaurants, there were separate lines and seating areas, divided by some kind of barrier, for men and women.
As has often been noted by an incredulous world, women in Saudi Arabia, alone in the Muslim world (except for Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan), are not allowed to drive. The government has paid for a “religious police” (separate from the regular police force) that patrol public places looking for women whose bodies were insufficiently covered or to check on the identification cards for men and women sitting together to make sure they were married, with the power to arrest violators.
In a sort of “two steps forward, one step back kind” of the way, the most dramatic of these traditional practices seem to be gradually withering away. This has come in the context of the efforts of Saudi rulers to keep international legitimacy, especially after the role of extremist Saudis in the Sept. 11 attacks, along with the relentless influence of the Internet and social media. The Saudi government’s statements frequently use the word “moderate” to describe the kind of Islam it favors. Yet conservative Islamic scholars, who still have many followers (including on Twitter!), regularly threaten the Saudi king with resistance over liberalization measures.
I’ve seen during this trip changed since six years ago (the one time I previously was in Saudi Arabia). More women are “only” wearing headscarves, rather than full-face covering, though for a Saudi to go out in public with no covering at all is still illegal. Visiting a supermarket, I saw men and women checking out in the same line. (A store employee I asked about this said, “Yes, we are making progress.”)
At my hotel, there were two coffee shops next to each other, one for men only and the other for women and couples, but in the big main restaurant, men and women were all mixed together. (If women wanted to stay separate from men, I was told, they could seat themselves in a special corner of the restaurant.)
At the conference I had attended six years ago, there were women participants, but they were seated in a separate room and listened to the proceedings, or participated in making statements, only through closed-circuit television. This time, the women were in the same hall, albeit in a separate section, and in my panel two of the three audience questions came from women.
There are almost no restrictions anymore on what jobs women can take, and in some workplaces, women and men work near each other, though separated by a screen. Women and men can have business meetings together, though in a slightly separated area. (I was told that the organization most conservative about hiring women remains the Saudi government.)
Also, last year the power of the religious police to stop activities they don’t like (as opposed to just nagging people) has been curbed. The Ministry of the Interior is said to be preparing to eliminate the driving ban.
I have spoken with a few educated and Westernized Saudis while here, who obviously may not be typical. On the one hand, all said that what made them proudest to be Saudis was Islam, particularly the country’s status as the location of the birth of the religion and the religion’s holiest sites. On the other hand, they all wanted Saudi Arabia to “modernize.” No more driving prohibitions, no more guardians, and gender-integrated workplaces.
As I mentioned, the conference I came for involved a government and societal modernization program. That program, called Vision 2030, seeks major changes in the Saudi government, which currently employs about 60 percent of the nation’s workforce. In many ways, these government jobs serve as a giant subsidy program, using oil revenues to buy off social discontent by paying people to take undemanding government jobs.
This creates harmful social dependence in addition to producing a public sector that works very poorly. Vision 2030 seeks to get more Saudis working in the private sector and to get the government out of more businesses (such as moving the healthcare system more into the private sector). For government itself, Vision 2030 is filled with performance targets for healthcare (everything from reducing obesity to speeding treatment in hospital emergency rooms), education (standardized testing for reading and math!), along with raising the percentage of women working from 22 percent to 30 percent, and the number of Saudis doing volunteer work from 11,000 to a million! But given where the government is now, this is going to be quite a slog, right up there with changes in the status of women.
This is a fascinating country that, while traditionally very conservative, is in the middle of major change. My time here has been fascinating, and what the Saudis are up to is really worth watching.
Featured Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius