Saudi Arabia's 'women's empowerment summit' is nothing but an empty PR stunt

Saudi Arabia's 'women's empowerment summit' is nothing but an empty PR stunt
Comment: Women's empowerment in Saudi Arabia will remain a sham initiative as long as the activists campaigning for such rights remain in prison, writes Alainna Liloia.
6 min read
28 Oct, 2020
The B20 summit touts women's empowerment as 'good for business' [Getty]
The B20 Summit hosted by Saudi Arabia this week, with an agenda focused on empowering women, has sparked intense criticism from human rights organisations and activists who rightly point out that many Saudi women activists remain in prison for demanding gender equality.

The summit occurs in the wake of the kingdom's ongoing and aggressive PR campaign touting its so-called commitment to women's empowerment and elevating Saudi women's increased opportunities in education and the workforce. Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government's efforts to create a positive image of the nation have been accompanied by social reforms granting Saudi women long overdue rights, such as the right to drive and the right to travel abroad without the permission of a guardian or male relative.

The B20 Summit, which provides an official forum for business leaders from the global community to offer policy recommendations to the G20, strongly focused on gender diversity in business and the economic empowerment of women in its agenda this year. The summit's "signature topic" was "women in business", and an action council was formed to promote women's leadership.

Yet, Saudi Arabia's egregious human rights record and harsh repression of women's empowerment figures, continue to mar any of its claims of advancing gender equality. Indeed, the rhetoric of women's empowerment is no more than a poorly told joke in a country that continues to jail women for exercising basic rights such as freedom of speech.

The rhetoric of women's empowerment is no more than a poorly told joke

Discussions of women's empowerment in such a repressive environment lead us to the question of "whose empowerment?" and "which women?" Certainly not Loujain Al-Hathloul who today began a hunger strike, or Samar Badawi. Not Nassima al-Sada or Nouf Abdulaziz or Maya'a al-Zahrani. These and other Saudi women activists remain in prison for their feminist resistance and their call for gender reforms, even though many of these reforms have now been implemented.

The B20 Summit and its agenda of women's empowerment constitute another meaningless PR stunt performed by Saudi leaders to paint a rosy picture of the nation and distract from its continued violation of human rights and abuse of women activists. Meanwhile, the participation of the international community reflects an unwillingness to prioritise women's rights over economic expediency.

Click to enlarge

Saudi Arabia and the G20 controversy

Saudi Arabia was granted the G20 presidency in December of 2019, but its leadership has been mired in controversy and earned it sharp criticism from human rights organisations claiming it only serves to legitimise a repressive regime.

The main G20 Summit to be held in November is focused on addressing economic and socioeconomic issues on a global scale and fostering "international economic cooperation". 
G20 delegates include politicians and government representatives, but they also include representatives from corporations, banks and financial institutions. Some of this year's representatives hail from major companies like HSBC, Mastercard, and McKinsey, to name a few.

The human rights organisation Amnesty issued a statement on 23 October condemning the B20 summit taking place ahead of the main G20 summit as a "sham", for claiming to promote women's empowerment while Saudi women activists remain in prison. The statement calls on business leaders to reflect on "their human rights responsibilities" in their business engagement with Saudi Arabia.

The organisation raised similar concerns about the Women20 Summit held earlier in October, slamming it as a form of "propaganda" in an open letter to W20 participants. The W20 is a G20 engagement group focused on gender equality and women's economic empowerment. Human Rights Watch issued a similar statement urging participants to advocate for the rights of Saudi women activists in prison, and to "refuse to play a role in Saudi Arabia's whitewashing efforts".

Discussions of women's empowerment in such a repressive environment lead us to the question of 'whose empowerment?' and 'which women?'

Lina Al-Hathloul, the sister of the jailed Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, also called out the W20 conference as "nothing more than another symbol of Saudi and international hypocrisy on the issue of women's equality" in an opinion piece for the Washington Post.

She writes: "If members of the G20, which purports to promote gender equality and advance the social and economic empowerment of women, truly want to mainstream issues of gender, voices such as that of my sister Loujain must be included. And for that, they must be released from their arbitrary detention in Saudi prisons."

The international community is falling short in addressing the continued detention of Saudi women activists. Participating in the G20 proceedings is whitewashing the kingdom's horrific human rights abuses, and their unwillingness to stop doing business with Saudi Arabia reflects their prioritisation of economic interests over human rights.

Empowerment or PR stunt?

The Saudi focus on women's empowerment in the B20 Summit may not seem like an obvious choice for a nation that jails women for their political views. Yet, in addition to contributing to the country's PR campaign, the B20 agenda also reflects Saudi Arabia's own economic and political concerns. Saudi Arabia requires greater female workforce participation and gender diversity to meet its economic and political goals, such as reducing dependence on a foreign workforce and meeting international standards of gender equality.

The B20 Summit focused strongly on women's "economic empowerment" and the need for increased gender diversity in business and leadership roles. In the view of Saudi rulers, women who are "empowered" economically will join the workforce and bolster the country's economic and socioeconomic agendas.

As the B20 website states so bluntly: "Gender diversity is good for business". Women's economic "empowerment" alongside increased social rights also make the country appear more progressive or acceptable on the international stage.

Read more: Jailed Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul on hunger strike, sister says

Yet, economic empowerment and piecemeal social rights are not the only elements necessary for true gender equality in Saudi Arabia to occur. Saudi women activists in prison cannot enjoy the right to drive or the right to apply for a passport and travel abroad freely. They cannot pursue the new employment opportunities available to Saudi women.

Women's social and economic rights must be accompanied by the right to engage in political and social resistance and express political views without retaliation or repression. 

As long as Saudi women are treated as pawns of the Saudi state, and the international community continues to participate in their economic and political games, Saudi women's "empowerment" will remain an empty PR stunt.

As the G20 Summit approaches, global leaders should reflect on the message they are sending to the rest of the world through their participation and in their continued business with Saudi Arabia. Most importantly, they should reflect on whether they value people over profit.

Alainna Liloia is a PhD student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research is focused on gender, politics and nation building in the Arab Gulf states.

Follow her on Twitter: @missalainneous

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

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.