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Saudi Arabia Walks a Fine Line in Giving More Rights to Women

As Saudi women prepare to vote and run for office for the first time, many believe that it is critical for the ruling family to avoid liberalizing society in a way that could drive more conservative-minded Saudis to extremism.

by Colleen Curry
Dec 3 2015, 6:40pm

Photo via EPA

The fight for women's rights in Saudi Arabia has long been complicated by the royal family's quest to modernize the country and grow its economy without alienating its most conservative Muslim hardliners — a tension that has become more pronounced as the country's new king has granted new privileges to women.

The Saudi electoral commission recently released data indicating that 900 women had registered to run in local municipal elections. It is the first time women have been allowed to pursue elected office in the country's history, coming only three months after they were granted the right to register to vote.

This week, the country's Al Riyadh newspaper reported that the Saudi Interior Ministry is also preparing to issue family identity cards to widows and female divorcees. The documentation will allow them to manage certain affairs, such as making emergency medical decisions or enrolling their children in school, without the approval of a man — a limited but significant power in a country where women are still banned from driving and must have a male legal guardian for their entire lives.

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These relatively progressive steps come during the first year of the reign of King Salman, who is widely portrayed as more closely aligned with conservatives than his reform-minded brother, King Abdullah, who died last January. Abdullah announced the plan to allow women to vote this year back in 2011. Though the push for such rights has moved at a glacial pace, the implementation of various reforms this year has nevertheless led many observers to believe that it is critical for the ruling family to avoid liberalizing society in a way that could drive more conservative-minded Saudis to extremism, threatening the country's security.

"Imagine the consequences for ISIS," said Roby Barrett, a Gulf region expert with the Middle East Institute and a senior fellow with the Joint Special Operations University, referring to the Islamic State terror insurgency by one of its various names. "If you start wholesale changes within society, it's going to exacerbate social tensions and problems and those guys are going to make greater inroads. That's what's in the back of everybody's mind."

While King Salman might be closer to conservatives, he is empowered to make decisions with or without the support of religious elders. But Saudi Arabia's rulers have always had to strike a delicate balance between politics and religion.

"These guys have got to institute change," Barrett said. "They know that things need to be done and change needs to happen, but it's within a very conservative construct in an extremely volatile time. So you really have to be careful about it."

At the same time, the country wants the economic growth that could come with fuller participation of women in the workforce. The country has invested billions in educating women from grade school through graduate school.

"Even Saudi Arabia cannot go on investing all that money and not get any economic return back," said Tom Lippman, author ofSaudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally. "They have to be participants in a productive Saudi society."

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In addition to the government's effort to grow its economy at a time when crippled oil prices are depleting the state budget and illustrating the advantage of diversification from petroleum, Lippman noted that there is increasing support for expanding the ranks of employment.

"There's more and more demand from women themselves, and frankly from their husbands, for them to get jobs — they need the money," he said.

Women in Saudi Arabia can now pursue work outside of the home, though they cannot drive themselves to or from their jobs and must be accompanied by a male in many circumstances. But the explosive popularity of Uber within urban areas and the construction of a subway system in Riyadh that's set to be completed by 2019 will increase their mobility. Progress may be slow, Lippman said, but it's also inevitable.

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Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that the advocacy group appreciates the government's apparent inclination to grant women greater rights despite potential repercussions among the country's conservatives.

"This is something that was championed primarily by King Abdullah, and it was something we were worried about when King Salman took over because he is rumored to be more conservative and closer to the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia," Coogle remarked. "So I think we were very heartened that he made good on Abdullah's promise to allow women to run."

He added that the trajectory of women's rights in the country is promising despite the enormous discrimination that still occurs.

"The battle between reforms on women's rights and the conservative establishment has gone on for a very long time, and that's one reason it's gone so slowly. They make little baby steps so as not to alienate people too quickly," Coogle said. "Once people become used to one thing — say, women working — it becomes more mainstream."

There has always been friction between Saudi Arabia's desire to become a modern country within the international community while at the same time adhering to what Coogle describes as a "very exclusionary state ideology" — and that friction may be best symbolized by the struggle for Saudi women's rights.

The municipal elections will take place on December 12, after which the country could potentially make another step forward with its first female elected officials.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen