Dr Hala Aldosari joined the MIT Center for International Studies in June 2019 as its Robert E WIlhelm Fellow. Her work examines the influence of gender norms on women’s political, economic, legal, and health statuses in the Arab Gulf states. She is working to establish an advocacy organization to advance women’s and human rights in Saudi Arabia and maintains a women’s rights advocacy project online (www.aminah.org). Among her many awards and honors, she was the inaugural recipient of The Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi Fellowship. The fellowship provides an independent platform for journalists and writers to offer their perspectives from parts of the world where freedom of expression is threatened or suppressed.
précis: Can you describe the progress that women in Saudi Arabia have made in the last couple of years?
HA: The most important driver of recent advancements in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is the economic crisis. Saudi Arabia’s economy has been facing a crisis since the 2014 systematic reduction in oil revenue. With the government refusing to cut public spending and subsidies, they had to find new ways to revive the private sector so that it can provide more revenue to the state. One of the main problems was that 85% of the youth, the most unemployed demographic, were women. At the same time, those women outnumbered men in terms of graduating from institutions of higher education. Foreign consultants who came to the country around 2016 and 2017 to look into how to reform the economy pointed to the restricted mobility of women, which is something that activists have been fighting against since 1990. Women are restricted by the guardianship system from being able to access their own documentation or travel for business and are banned from driving for their commute.
When Mohammed bin Salman decided it was important to deliver on the economy by allowing certain women’s rights, this did not include all women’s rights. Only those rights that encourage women to take part in the workforce were to be allowed. Issues like protection from violence and reforms to the family law were not addressed. Men can still control women in the family by reporting them as “disobedient” or “absent from home” – two offenses punishable by lashing and prison sentences.
So while more women may be consumers of public spaces, events, and recreation, and are able to engage in the workforce and in public, they are not to be emancipated completely to the point where men lose their control over women.
précis: Do you think this progress will continue?
HA: Unemployment numbers are still sky high, and there are still many women who are more educated than men but unemployed. The private sector is still dependent on state spending. I expect women’s rights to continue improving in terms of how effectively they can participate in the economy for the state’s economic growth, and also because women’s rights will continue to be important for Mohammed bin Salman to refurbish his image as a “reformer” and get the approval of his Western allies. He looks to achieve this by appointing more women, allowing more foreign women to invest in the country, allowing more foreign women tourists to enjoy the country in ways that Saudi women will not be able to, like wearing bikinis and going on tourism adventures. All of these things will help refurbish his image as a modernizer. But I would not say that Saudi Arabia is improving organically because local women’s voices will continue to be targeted and silenced. Women who have been engaging in civil society by reporting grievances and trying to influence the government’s agenda-setting will not be tolerated under Mohammed bin Salman’s rule. They are likely to become even more oppressed so that his image and his program of “reform” can go unchallenged.
précis: How has Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power affected the ease with which activists can mobilize or press their claims?
HA: Saudi Arabia’s civil society is facing a crisis. Civil society traditionally had been given greater leniency by the state as long as they acted like charity organizations providing services to the needy while any kind of engagement in politics or making demands or trying to change the norms or cultural perceptions of people, towards migrants or women, for instance, was not allowed. Those kinds of activities were never tolerated. It was always very difficult for civil agents to mobilize and advocate for reforms, whether they were on their own or in associations, because of the nature of the regime.
This is an absolute monarchy with the ruling family has been positioning itself since the beginning of the state as the central source of power. The monarchy could not tolerate civil society agents, whether they were informing policies or documenting gaps in services and resources, because that would expose the ruling family or allow for more credible and authentic sharing of power. But even though the monarchical family was never tolerant of civil society as political actors, there used to be a margin of space, especially the online space, where people could protect themselves by seeking safety in numbers. The call for reform, such as lifting the ban on women driving, was advocated by so many people under the cloak of online features like hashtags that it was hard for the regime to pinpoint the blame on individual women.
But this has changed. Mohammed bin Salman has positioned himself to be the owner of “reforms.” For him to get that credit, whether it’s domestically or globally, there can only be his voice and only his narrative. Today you won’t find any independent journalist inside Saudi Arabia. Most are imprisoned, silenced, or exiled–or assassinated like Jamal Khashoggi. The only reporting or coverage in Saudi Arabia is along the official government line.
Mohammed bin Salman, in restructuring the political landscape, wanted anybody who might pose a challenge to him to be silenced, whether by locking them up or targeting them with the death penalty or extra-judicial killing. Civil society is now basically developing in exile. Many activists, after the several waves of arrest that happened, have chosen to either remain silent or leave Saudi Arabia and continue their advocacy from outside.
précis: How long do you think Mohammed bin Salman can sustain his image as a “reformer” in the Western media and publics?
HA: We know now that this image is unsustainable. Having the best influence campaigners or public relations specialists can only help you get so far–eventually you have to deliver. Whether it is Mohammed bin Salman’s image as someone who is modernizing the state or reforming the economy, a military leader, a religious innovator, or someone who is engaging more of the youth in decision-making, he is a demonstrated failure. His engagement was mostly with Western media outlets, and it was very much tailored to convey certain impressive characteristics. But those same outlets have turned against him now. There is a feeling of betrayal among people in Western media and other Western institutions who had promoted him in the beginning. Most of these people have now denounced their relationship with Mohammed bin Salman.
précis: What are the greatest challenges of getting reliable information about the status of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries out to the rest of the world?
HA: It is important to sustain and foster the voices of local journalists. For instance, Jamal Khashoggi’s one-year reporting on the inner politics of Saudi Arabia was more informative than all the American journalists’ coverage, which praised Mohammed bin Salman as a “reformer” or as someone who is breaking from the radical heritage of Islam. You get more realistic reporting when you have the experiences and nuances about reality from people who are from the region as part of the story. When you read journalists based in the region who are actually engaging with the people, they have a completely different story to tell than those who are only listening to the powerful elites and reproducing reports that are not well-informed.
For people who are coming to cover the region, please listen to the local people and build real relationships that are not based on just one story. Delve deep into the lived experiences of the people, which I understand is very difficult due to the restrictions on media and press freedom in general and on women and civil society in particular. Many of the journalists covering the Middle East will find it more and more difficult to find independent voices to comment on their stories or find people willing to be a part of their story because they can no longer do so safely. Even if they do find a local person who can comment for a one-off story, they will likely just repeat the official narrative in order to protect themselves and their identity, which again highlights the need for more investigative research and foreign journalists who are willing to participate fully in the lived experience of the local people.