By Najah Al-Osaimi*
The article was formerly published in Russia Review (June – July 2018).
Since the appointment of 32-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman as heir to the throne, Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of reforms in favor of women, allowing them more freedoms and rights.
Saudi women now benefit from greater political, social and economic development and are granted greater engagement in a concerted effort to alleviate inequality.
These steps have been introduced under the Crown prince’s Vision 2030- a national plan that has been set to lead the economic and social future of the kingdom.
Under the Vision, old regulations and policies concerning women have been reviewed and restructured.
One of the most significant steps, which have been undertaken to further the rights of Saudi women, was the decision to lift the historic ban one female driving.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has issued a decree in September 2017 allowing women to drive for the first time, and ending a controversial issue, which has for long been an issue that hurdled how the situation of women in Saudi Arabia is projected abroad. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women driving is forbidden.
Few months later, Saudi Arabia has open up stadiums to women, after announcing that women will be allowed to enter a football stadium to watch a match for the first time, such move is believed to be a gesture to easing of the systematic segregation between sexes.
But the sweeping changes to empower women are not limited to allowing them more rights, but also to creating opportunities for them that would elevate their role in the national economic and social development.
Under the series of reforms ordered by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia’s has reduced the authority of male guardianship over women. Saudi women are now allowed to open their own businesses without the consent of a male relative. Such move has been taken to encourage women to take entrepreneurial opportunities that would contribute in reducing the female unemployment rate.
The Crown Prince’s vision has taking the role of women in the economy very seriously. The government pledged to increase the number of women in the workforce from 22 per cent to 31 by the year 2013. As part of advancing such objective, a number of measurements have been introduced to increase the female work opportunities, including the elimination of rules that confined women strictly to jobs in the educational and medicine sectors. As of 2018, women were given the right to apply for positions in military service in several governorates including Riyadh, Mecca and Medina. As well as to apply for jobs in passport offices airport and land, that had previously been restricted to males and foreign workers. Not only has this increased the employment rate of women, it has also abolished social conventions that imposed segregation between males and females in the work place. Evidence of this too has been on display in other fields including politics.
Politically, women have been invited to participate in the decision making process as witnessed by the appointment of women to the Shura council (an advisory body that passed a decision), granting women the right the occupy 20 per cent of political seats.
Additionally, women working to the Human Rights Council has been grew by 25 per cent of the total number of members of the Council after six females have been appointed in the Council.
Women were already allowed to participate in the elections and the election of the Council of Chambers of Commerce. A number of women won the membership of these councils.
The government plans to increase the participation of female in leadership positions from 1 per cent to five per cent. Such intention has been already furthered by the appointment of Princess Rima bint Bandar bin Sultan to head a Saudi federation for community sport. Her appointment made her become the first woman to lead a federation covering sporting activities for both men and women.
Women now benefit from greater access to sport after the Education Ministry announced that girls will receive physical education lessons as part of curriculum in public school.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia is heading for prosperous future for women. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there seems to be no limits to reform. For Saudi women they are excited about what will happen next. But the rest of the world, given the strategic importance of the country and its leading role, we should be watching just as closely.
* Researcher and journalist from Saudi Arabia.