The big news that Saudi women will be able to travel abroad without the permission of a male guardian is indeed a real step in a country where human rights are not part of the covenant between the government and its citizens. But social media, which hailed Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for his enlightened attitude and his generosity, “forgot” to properly thank the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose murder, apparently on orders of that same crown prince, contributed significantly to the show of Saudi liberalism.
Women will no longer be forced, at least according to the new law, to sneak out of their country and seek refuge elsewhere. They will be able to apply for and obtain a passport, hoping only that no “security” or other pretexts will be found to deny them of one. This step is another in a series of decisions by Bin Salman, which include permission for women to obtain a driver’s license and even to attend a soccer match.
But the new legislation will also have to deal with bans that are often more severe and carry more weight than the law, bans that stem from tradition and the kingdom’s harsh and patriarchal customs. Will a woman who wants to travel abroad defy her husband, even if the law is on her side? Will she demand her rights in court if her brother or her father orders her not to obtain a passport without their consent? And what about women who have received a passport but need money to realize their dream, money for which they will have to ask their male guardians?
There are no new laws for any of this. But the legislation may spark new dialogue that will generate future changes. In most Arab countries women do not need a man’s permission to go abroad and most of them have greater gender and political rights than Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom, where Islamic law is the constitution, whose government does not depend on a parliament or elections, is even more restrictive than Iran, where women are permitted to drive, vote and stand for election and study most professions taught at universities. In Tunisia, which is probably the most liberal of all when it comes to women’s rights, they certainly have political rights - the right to divorce and to take up any profession they choose.
Bin Salman defined growth in the rate of women in the workplace from 22 percent to 30 percent as one of the main goals in his vision for 2030, which he presented about two years ago. He also sees the revival of the movie industry as an important tool in variegating sources of income in his country. He confronted the heads of the “morality police” head-on and made it clear that he is against “religious exaggeration,” both involving the interpretation of religious law and the way it is sometimes violently applied by that agency.
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But it is impossible to ignore that most of the steps he has taken to show his concern for human rights came after the Khashoggi murder and amid heightened tensions with the U.S. Congress, European governments and the Western publics.
Saudi Arabia enjoys the almost unequivocal backing of U.S. President Donald Trump, who even circumvented a Congressional decision not to sell it weapons. But Bin Salman himself is persona non grata in the United States; not officially, but for a long time now it has been made clear to him that he’d better not come as long as the Khashoggi affair has not been put to rest.
Bin Salman, who is attentive to Trump’s advisers, is trying to polish his image and that of his kingdom by his contribution to human rights and especially women’s rights, and in so doing, he attempts to strike a balance between the public indictment hanging over his head and the need to keep strategic ties with the United States intact.
The importance of these ties is not one-way. Washington needs them no less, and perhaps more, than Riyadh does, especially with the latter heading the Arab coalition against Iran. But the crown prince, who realizes that these ties can go awry if he does not give Trump the ammunition he needs for dialogue with Congress, is leveraging Saudi domestic policy on human rights to strengthen his foreign relations.
This is a relatively low price to pay, since these steps do not require him to change the regime, or make constitutional changes to turn the country into a democratic kingdom or at least a parliamentary one. He need not fear an opposition party, and meanwhile he does not intend to abolish the death penalty, in the application of which Saudi Arabia is in competition with Iran and China.
But Bin Salman has set a precedent in transforming domestic policy, especially human rights – which have never before bothered West countries in their relationship with Arab or third world countries – into a political tool. Suddenly Western governments also realize that human rights, the rights of women and minorities require them to scrutinize their joint interests with countries that breach these rights, and in some cases impose sanctions, even if such sanctions harm relations with those countries.