While Saudi women celebrate their hard-earned right to vote in next year’s Municipal Council elections, the frenzy of international media interest highlights just how mysterious this country remains.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not legally permitted to drive, open a bank account without a male relative’s assistance, or interact freely with men outside of their family.
Our media images of black abaya and niqab-clad Saudi females arouse the usual expressions of dismay at their presumed oppression.
So have we missed the point?
Arab Spring, Saudi-style
Most assume that the Saudi regime is scrambling to discourage popular civil dissent in the face of Arab Spring revolutions.
In a way they are right. But this step forward for women marks another step in the slow but steady march towards harnessing female productivity which started at least a decade ago.
Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has massive oil reserves and commercial production, not all Saudi citizens have access to the wealth it generates.
Almost a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning population are under 30. About 80% of male jobseekers did not complete high school. And a 2007 report for the Ministry of Social Affairs found almost 22% of Saudi citizens were below the poverty line and collecting social security payments.
Unemployment is high. But this is partly because many Saudis reject jobs which they consider below their status. After decades of reliance on a work force which is 75% foreign, Saudis are used to having all their needs met by foreign workers. So Saudi jobseekers now see roles other than management as demeaning and dishonourable.
A dissatisfied, idle, and relatively impoverished population is unproductive and lately has become restive, posing a significant security risk for the Kingdom.
But when this conservatism is the root of potential threats to domestic security, radical reform is required to “re-educate” and to impel the Kingdom’s economic development forward with greater speed.
A King’s journey
When Abdullah Abdul Aziz Al Saud became King in 2005, he shocked the nation by visiting the capital Riyadh’s slums and announcing measures for alleviating poverty and dealing humanely with drug addiction, prostitution, and crimes arising out of poverty.
He dedicated a significant budget to low-cost housing and social welfare payments, pardoned hundreds of prisoners held for reasons related to poverty, and declared an amnesty for those wanted for threats to national security.
Recognising that economic and social progress demands change but not disruption, massive budgets were earmarked for education, technical training, and positive discrimination for Saudi work entrants, and for welfare payments that currently match what the average Saudi citizen is competent to earn.
King Abdullah’s announcement that women may now serve on Municipal Boards and as Members of the Shura Council is entirely consistent with his vision of moving the Saudi economy away from its oil dependency.
Veteran Saudi-watchers often quip that every new Saudi policy is “progress without change”, but in fact under King Abdullah there have been consistent moves towards a more socially inclusive Saudi Arabia.
Quantum leaps for women
In the past decade there have been quantum leaps in female education, civil participation, and work opportunities.
The 2006 Royal Decree that females be included in all private and public sector employment came after King Abdullah’s pivotal role in developing a Ten Year Program of Action calling for reform and modernisation in the Muslim world. His commitment to the cultural, social and political advancement of women in Muslim society is clear.
The first introduction of Municipal Elections in each Saudi Province in 2005 excluded women from nomination and election but it opened the door for them to participate Chamber of Commerce elections.
In the subsequent Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry elections, 17 of the 71 candidates were women, and 2 were successfully elected to the 18-member Board.
One week later, King Abdullah directly appointed two more women who had only narrowly missed full election, one of whom, Madawi Al Hassoun, later told me that “Saudi women now see opportunities to share with men the responsibility to develop our country while keeping our religious and traditional values.”
In this conservative, still largely gender-segregated society, Saudi females now far outnumber male university graduates and are keen to do something other than teach - the profession which traditionally absorbed 90% of employed women.
In the last 5 years calls for women’s access to the private sector have emerged and are growing louder.
Many Saudi female journalists, academics, and businesswomen have led public debate about women’s access to social service and to jobs deemed suitable for women, as well as equal pay for those jobs. In the last decade they are supported by many high profile and outspoken Saudi men.
A 2006 poll found 92% of Saudis supported the general principle of “empowerment of women”, and Saudis express frustration at the West’s preoccupation with symptoms of conservative values rather than their dynamic possibilities.
After the 2006 Jeddah Economic Forum, prominent Saudi businesswoman Lubna Olayan pointed out to me that the foreign media were more interested in her headscarf slipping off her head than in her historic and impassioned speech calling for Saudis to intensify the campaign for women’s equal opportunity with men.
Without a doubt the most radical reform in the Kingdom’s young history is the 2010 labour law desegregating the workplace and permitting men and women to work together in the same physical spaces.
This was so radical that the Chairman of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry - the Middle East’s most powerful economic organisation – faced accusations of compromising moral values by publicly promoting it.
Yet this new law, and the reform it implies, went largely unremarked in the West.
Saudi women now own and run about 20,000 small to medium enterprises and hold private assets worth about US$16bn - wealth that sits idly in banks while the Kingdom’s investment facilities remain at best inadequate to their needs and at worst completely closed to them as females.
Progress with change
Many observers have assumed recent changes for women’s suffrage in Saudi Arabia are an effort by the regime to appease discontent in a volatile population.
But this is only part of the answer.
What they have failed to see is the long-term trajectory of Saudi Arabia, and the progress it has made with slow but consistent reforms.
They have also failed to see that Saudi women want progress that is in keeping with the nation’s traditional values.
Women’s right to vote in municipal elections and be appointed to the Shura Council is a green light for civil education more broadly.
One university is wasting no time in running information sessions “to enrich the knowledge base of women on their future political engagement”.
Saudi women’s full civil and economic participation in Saudi Arabia will advance economic development and the Kingdom’s longterm security. This at last is progress that intends to create change.