The New Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

On 21thJune 2017, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) was appointed as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia at the young age of 32. In less than a year, MbS led several successful reforms with the aim of modernizing the country and creating a stronger future economy independent from oil revenues. Changes in the country include restrictions of the religious powers, imprisonment of numerous Saudi princes accused of corruption. His most recent reform which will see the removal of the ban against female drivers, will come into action in June 2018

In a candid interview that took place recently between Jeffrey Goldberg (The Atlantic) and Crown Prince Mohmmad bin Salman; MbS was asked about his opinion on women’s equality to which he replied “I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So, I support women.”

Of course, we could say in the first place that the nation is finally opening itself to a more open and tolerant interpretation of Islam that benefits women. Bulabo, a Saudi diplomat, says lifting the restrictions on Saudi women makes economic sense. “Women do work in Saudi Arabia, in fairly limited fields, but to increase productivity and the size of the private sector and tap into a bigger skills base, you have to get women — who are largely highly educated in Saudi — into the workforce,” he said. “There are a couple of things that stop them currently. One thing is male guardianship. And it’s hard to get to work if you can’t drive to your job.”

Bin Salam’s government seems to want to shake up things. But there is some criticism around the rapidity of those changes. Questions are raising around his economic plan. And an end to segregation will take a lot of time to change

But is the nation ready to face these changes?

Mohammed bin Salman consolidated his authority so rapidly that those who might oppose it have little or no time to respond. He sidelined clerics he judged to have been unsupportive, as well as eliminated rival royals who may have had a claim to the throne. Bin Salam radically changed women status in Saudi Arabia. He has given them more freedom and independence, including the right to perform on a stage, go to concerts, the right to attend a sport game in an arena, and increased women’s presence in workforce. Bubalo affirms that the work of Saudi women activist can no longer be ignored, “We have to give credit to the many women who have pushed for change to the status and rights of women to lift restrictions of male guardianship, the right to vote, to work and many other things,” he says.

But the greatest challenge of Bin Salam regarding Saudi women’s status will remain in changing the mentalities that are so deeply rooted in ancient traditions. Women may now have the right to drive and attend cultural events but changing guardians’ mentalities, and even majority of women’s, mentality will take time. Every Saudi woman has a male guardian (father, husband or brother…) whose permission they require to travel (or even apply for a passport). “It was really hard with my guardians — my dad and my husband. They didn’t let me go out,” said Majrashi, a Saudi woman whose son is vehemently opposed to her driving cars. The system still controls millions of families.

Changes in the system are a good start to develop the country. But they also contribute a lot to Saudi Arabia’s change of image towards the world, a way to sell the new country and create business ties with foreign leaders. Those changes shadow the public mentality and private conflicts among relatives.

Women’s condition is still an issue in Saudi Arabia. “All the changes that we are hearing about are economic and entertainment changes,” said Nasreen Alissa, a Saudi lawyer. “The rules and regulations are the same regarding women’s basic rights. Not a single thing has changed except for driving and entertainment.” There are a lot of things that women still can’t do: marry, divorce, travel without a guardian’s approval, mix freely and meet with the opposite sex, appear in public without wearing a full black abaya, get a fair hearing in court (one male testimony is worth two women’s), and more.

In many people’s perspective, MbS is working on a top-down approach. Removing bans on the most visible spectrum of the country, to make it look more modernized than it really is. In doing so, the basic laws of freedom that actually require change will take a longer time to accomplish.

The government is taking a cautious approach in changing the image of Saudi Arabia, in order to not anger the conservative clerics, whom are mostly against Westernization. But there’s been more freedom of movement. Women are celebrating and eagerly waiting for new changes.

Another reform that is in talk is giving women the choice not to wear abaya (loose-fitting, full length black robes) in public. In bigger cities, the women are already seen tweaking the traditional long black coverup, so this reform will see more positive acceptance there as compared to smaller cities and town.

For the first time, a two-day event hosted on 19th & 20th of March by the Women in Leadership forum under the theme “Let’s talk about tomorrow” took place in Saudi’s capital Riyadh. The forum focused on addressing economic empowerment, diversity and inclusion etc. while giving the attendees an opportunity to listen to accomplished females from Saudi Arabia, attend workshops and interact with different entrepreneurs. This was followed by Saudi Arabia celebrating its second International Women’s Day on the 8th of April.

The underlying concept is that MbS’ reforms are aimed at improving the image of his country, to attract more foreign investors. Increasing the presence of women in the workforce will only help boost the economy. Whether this change is slight or long overdue, we can safely say that every small victory counts.

The whole world is watching, what will Saudi Arabia do next?


Chloé Manguian

Women in Business_Bocconi Female Students Association