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The Janus Face of Saudi Reform

Updated: Jun 20, 2018

Official White House Photograph by Shealah Craighead [20 March 2018]

The “Western world” has a renewed interest in Saudi Arabia, which is now being portrayed as a “progressive” state due to Crown Prince Salman’s attempts at instating top-down reform. According to Sky News, Prince Salman wants Saudi women to be free to drive, attend public events, and work equally alongside men. As of this month, women in Saudi Arabia will be able to legally drive in addition to also been granted the legal ability to start businesses without the permission of a male guardian. Social reforms, such as the reopening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia after a 35 year ban, have excited conservative commentators within the UK who hope to increase trade with the country despite international outcry over Saudi Arabia’s role in human rights abuses in the Yemeni war.

In addition to turning a blind eye to Saudi foreign policy, it appears as through such commentators are ignoring domestic repression. On the same day as issuing 27 royal orders internally promoted as being in line with the new era of Saudi reform, it was announced that the authorities have recently arrested numerous persons in a crackdown against female activists. Here, women’s rights campaigners have been targeted by the government for alleged “links to foreign powers”. Sebastian Sons, author of Built on Sand: Saudi Arabia – a Problematic Ally, highlights the change in social versus political reform within the country. Here, while the social situation for women and other citizens alike is improving, the political situation remains stagnant. Sons explains:

The human rights situation remains catastrophic. The number of death sentences and political prisoners has risen sharply once again … One must not fall into the trap of equating societal relaxations with political ones.

Moreover, it has been reported that those who question the nature of the reforms inside Saudi Arabia are being arrested. This is because Prince Salman wants to appear as a reformist within "the West", while limiting engagement with human rights activists inside Saudi Arabia who are arguing for more substantial reforms. Here, activists claim that reforms thus far have been superficial and limited in their attempts to improve the situation of women.

Therefore, while the marking of 24 June 2018 as the first day that women in Saudi Arabia are able to drive acts to promote the view of reforms in Saudi Arabia as having a revolutionary impact on the country, it is evident that the situation is much more grim. Certainly, social reform in Saudi Arabia is largely superficial without an improvement in the political situation.

Kate C. Hashemi

MENA Research Consultant – MECS

This article represents the views of the author alone and does not reflect the position of MECS.

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