Analysis

Saudi Arabia's New Weapon Against Women

Government-sponsored app Absher, downloaded over 11 million times, allows male guardians to set restrictions on women's travel visas

A Saudi woman drives her car down the capital's busy Tahlia Street after midnight for the first time, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018.
Nariman El-Mofty,AP

It’s been more than 40 years since Princess Mashaal bint Fahd was shot in the head, executed in a parking lot in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The princess, who was close to the royal household (her great uncle was King Khaled), was apprehended at the airport as she was about to leave the country with her lover — the brother of the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon.

Princess Mashaal, who had refused to marry a young man whom her parents had chosen for her, disguised herself as a Saudi man, falsified her travel documents and set out on a trip that would lead to her death, which then prompted an international storm of controversy.

The princess’ story was also the subject of a film entitled “Death of a Princess” that was shown in Britain. The Saudis flew into a rage over the film, recalling its ambassador from London, sending the British ambassador in Riyadh packing and banning the Egyptian actors who portrayed the film’s leads from entering the country.

>> Saudi Arabia will let women drive, but here is a list of things they still can't do ■ The new generation that's transforming Saudi Arabia

The Saudis issued a false account of events, claiming that the princess had drowned at sea. They even dispatched search parties in an effort to demonstrate that the story was true.

Britain apologized to Saudi Arabia. Mobil Oil published a full-page ad in the New York Times condemning the film, and the kingdom itself offered $11 million to stop it from being shown.

But British journalist Antony Thomas of the Independent newspaper, who had by chance witnessed the brutal execution, filmed it with a tiny camera and distributed the footage around the world. The Saudis’ story was then shown to be demonstrably false.

Since then, there have been changes in the world. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October prompted condemnation and even sanctions against the kingdom and the standing of Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, has been diminished in the West. But Saudi women who dare to fall in love without permission, or just want to go abroad without the say-so of their male guardians, put their lives in danger and travel restrictions are being enforced against them to an increasing extent.

And now there's a phone app designed to keep an eye on Saudi women planning to go abroad. Called Absher, it has been downloaded more than 11 million times on Google Play alone. It’s a government app that allows citizens and foreigners to check on the status of their visas, find out what medical services are available near them and how they can extend their visas so they can remain in the kingdom.

File photo: Saudi women take a selfie at a mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, December 10, 2015.
Jordan Pix / Getty Images

But the app features another function as well. It can be used to provide permission to a wife or daughter to travel abroad, and to specify which countries can be visited and for how long. The details are transferred to a government monitoring system and to airport computers.

As a result, when a woman arrives at passport control, the terms of the permit granted by her guardian to leave the country appear on a computer screen. She will be allowed to depart only subject to the conditions provided by the guardian. And she won’t be allowed to leave at all if that is what her husband, brother or even her son — if he is the only one “authorized” by the family — has decided.

The app has given men in Saudi Arabia a means of control that spares them hiring private detectives and ostensibly shifts responsibility to the state in preventing their daughters or wives from leaving the country, because from the moment the information is entered into the app, the border police are required to act accordingly. The day will probably come relatively soon when the government will require guardians or potential guardians to use the app to demonstrate their intent to fulfill their legal obligations regarding the women.

But in the meantime, the app has stirred up a storm in the West and it isn’t clear that it will continue to be downloadable from Apple and Google. Members of the U.S. Congress have asked the companies to remove the app. Congresswoman Katherine Clark called it a “patriarchal weapon,” in a tweet in which she said it “allows Saudi men to track women, restrict their travel, and enable human rights violations. #Apple and #Google must stop facilitating this dangerous tool of control.”

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote to the CEOs of Apple and Google demanding that the app be removed immediately. “American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” he wrote.

The two CEOs promised that they would scrutinize the requests to see whether the app violates their companies’ policies, but none of these very intelligent people contacted the Saudi government directly to demand that the guardianship laws governing Saudi women be abolished. And the laws will indeed persist, with or without the app.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed is making efforts to demonstrate openness and willingness to improve the status of women somewhat. His decision to allow them to drive is considered a showcase of Saudi liberalism.

In 2017, King Salman issued an order abolishing the requirement that women get their guardians’ approval to obtain government services other than under extraordinary circumstances. The order was directed mainly at a regulation that barred women from receiving medical care without male approval. Recently women were also allowed to attend sporting events and entertainment performances.

But the new legal provisions have not been able to withstand the power of tradition and custom in the kingdom, which provide the restrictive setting respective of the letter of the law, because few women would dare sue their male warders.

Since the execution of Princess Mashaal, no other Saudi woman is known to have been executed for fleeing home, but women who have left their homes either for elsewhere in Saudi Arabia or another country and who are caught are usually moved to government shelters, where they are closely supervised. These facilities are similar to prison but the inmates have no possibility of being pardoned and their detention is open-ended in time.

Now what Saudi women really need is an app that would allow women to eliminate the restrictions imposed upon them by the male app.