Saudi Arabia may be about to relax male guardianship over women, but there's a catch

Saudi Arabia may be about to relax male guardianship over women, but there's a catch
Comment: Any progress on women's rights will be a concession, not a royal gift conferred upon subjects, forced to answer with deference and gratitude, writes Karim Traboulsi.
7 min read
12 Jul, 2019
Saudi Arabia will host the G20 summit in November 2020 [Getty]
Saudi women may be on the verge of breaking loose of state-imposed subservience to male guardianship, yet Mohammed bin Salman's commandeering of the cause of female enfranchisement in the Kingdom comes with a big catch.

Saudi officials on Thursday told western media "instructions from the top" had come to prepare for relaxing travel restrictions on women imposed through the male guardianship system, which currently means a Saudi woman needs the permission of a male relative, sometimes even a male child, to obtain a passport and leave the Kingdom for any purpose.

This comes on the heels of a vague report in local newspaper Okaz, that said the unelected Shura Council, a supposedly advisory body, was preparing to propose a law to lower the age of legal adulthood from 21 to 18, and hand over control over travel documents to all Saudis who reach that age, rather than to their "guardians".

The report has caused a lot of confusion in Saudi Arabia as it was unlcear whether the new proposals would apply or not to women - considered "dependent minors" of their male relatives in all stages of their lives under current rules.

That that the details were shared only with western media is telling of the contempt in which Saudi officials hold their people, and no clarification has so far been offered in Saudi media. 

At any rate, if these reports are true, Saudi women could be on the brink of life-changing improvements to their rights and status in what is perhaps the only place left in the world where they remain, in every sense of the word, second-class citizens.

The Saudi Royal Court and religious establishment deserve no praise, premature or otherwise, for releasing a hostage they had kidnapped in the first place

But the Saudi Royal Court and religious establishment deserve no praise, premature or otherwise, for releasing a hostage they had kidnapped in the first place.

Whether for this or for lifting their ban on women drivers, they must not be allowed to pick up the fruits of others' struggle and claim the credit for themselves.

And despite the apparent intersection, their agenda should not be conflated with that of ordinary Saudi men and women yearning to gain their full rights, commensurate with the bare minimum standards set forth in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

The 'reform-minded despot'

A little context is needed to understand the difference between these agendas and why it's important.

Considered the architect of the ongoing savage war in Yemen, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had already climbed to the highest echelons of power through the Ministry of Defence.

But it was after he orchestrated a palace coup in the summer of 2017 against his cousin-predecessor Prince Mohammed bin Nayef that the ruthless young crown prince launched a relentless quest to concentrate power in his own inexperienced hands. 

That Vision 2030 package included recasting bin Salman in the image of a reformer

To acquire an expedited form of legitimacy for his power grab, he needed to co-opt both a domestic constituency and Riyadh's sponsors in the West; and at the same time neutralise independent critical voices who may threaten his agenda, as we have seen with the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

MbS brought in unscrupulous consultants and PR companies to give him and the Kingdom a makeover. The result: Vision 2030, a pompous, borderline surreal yet so far ineffective plan to wean the kingdom off oil as a warming world moves to keep hydrocarbons in the ground, including Saudi Arabia's vast but increasingly less valuable fossil fuel reserves.

That Vision 2030 package included recasting bin Salman in the image of a reformer, even iconoclast, keen to liberalise not just the country's oil-addicted economy but also its ultraconservative social norms that for long revulsed people around the world to the point of fascination, and more importantly, kept its women and free-minded folk in unbearable chains.

In a ka-ching moment, western establishments including many in the media, participated with alacrity in propagating yet another instance of the useful trope of 'reform-minded despot friendly to the West', this time MbS.

Co-opting Saudis, however, could not be done with money alone. It also needed a combination of gaslighting, historic revisionism, and cracking down on freedom of thought and expression, at home and in the wider region. Recall that the blockade of Qatar is in no small part aimed at silencing media critical of Riyadh's policies, including The New Arab.

Wahhabi revisionism

Make no mistake, every oppressive law in the Saudi today comes from its harsh Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, the ruling ideology in which the Saudi realm was conceived from its early beginnings more than two centuries ago. 

This is an unassailable fact so well established that MbS has had to resort to altering history in a way primarily aimed at the young Saudis he is so keen to manipulate into rallying around his absolute rule.

Over the past two years, MbS-aligned media productions, including Ramadan TV series Al-Asouf and countless talk shows have peddled the line that Saudi Arabia was somehow moderate and even liberal, until Muslim Brotherhood influence through the Sahwa movement from 1979 onwards "radicalised" Saudi society - a line that MbS first launched on CBS 60 Minutes in 2018.

But the Sahwa, many of whose leading clerics now languish without charge in MbS' dungeons, is a moderate movement; its threat to MbS is that unlike the clerics who have pledged allegiance to his reign, it is politicised and independent, and cannot be bribed into acquiescence.

Ending male guardianship is a hard sell to still dominant conservative forces in Saudi Arabia

"MbS would like to advance a new narrative for my country's recent history, one that absolves the government of any complicity in the adoption of strict Wahhabi doctrine. That simply isn't the case," Jamal Khashoggi, later assassinated allegedly at MbS' orders, wrote in a Washington Post editorial.

"MbS is right to free Saudi Arabia from ultra-conservative religious forces, he is wrong to advance a new radicalism that, while seemingly more liberal and appealing to the West, is just as intolerant of dissent," he added, in a tragically prophetic conclusion. 

All your chains in return for one

MbS is presiding over an unprecedented and ongoing crackdown on moderate clerics, liberal bloggers, and pertinently, women's rights activists who lobbied for years for basic rights like the ability to drive and travel freely.

Many of these brave women have been tortured and sexually assaulted, allegedly under the supervision of MbS' right hand man Saud al-Qahtani, not long after he took credit for their activism when he ended the ban on driving for women.

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Like with the end on the ban, the motion in the Saudi Shura Council to relax some - but not all, according to the same Saudi officials - male guardianship rules on women is welcome news. But it should be thought of as a victory and a concession, not a royal gift conferred upon subjects who must now answer with gratitude to their liege.

MbS probably never considered conceding more to women beyond the important but ultimately secondary right to drive. Ending male guardianship is a hard sell to still dominant conservative forces in Saudi Arabia, who are pushing back against women driving, including through physical assault.

The crown prince is not promising to release Saudi women from their chains

Yet the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the exponential rise in the number of Saudi women fleeing oppression and abuse in the Kingdom and bravely drawing attention to their quest for freedom, have severely damaged MbS' bid for domestic and international legitimacy and left him a pariah.

Most likely, MbS is about to concede some ground on this and other issues, including the war on Yemen, in order to earn himself some forgiveness as he prepares to host the G20 summit next year, and shore up his project to rule for the next five decades.

In fact, that the Shura Council was instructed to prepare the law "from the very top", contrary to its stated function as the origin of bottom-to-top counsel, is further proof of how MbS intends to continue to govern.

The crown prince therefore is not promising to release Saudi women from their chains. Instead, he is promising them - and all Saudis - that he will replace those chains with others, to which he alone holds the keys.

The answer to this deceitful genie's promise must not be gratitude. It must be to take what he offers, then demand more, demand full control and an end to his one-man rule.

Karim Traboulsi is acting Managing Editor of The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @kareemios

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.