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.