Did Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah have a soft spot for women’s progress?

January 23, 2015, 9:22 PM UTC
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at Heathrow Airport in west London
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at Heathrow Airport in west London October 29, 2007. On the eve of a state visit to Britain, King Abdullah accused Britain of failing to do enough to combat international terrorism and said al Qaeda remained a major threat. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez (BRITAIN) - RTR1VGNM
Photograph by Dylan Martinez — Reuters

Did Saudi King Abdullah, who died this week at the age of 90, quietly support the right of his women subjects to drive? That’s certainly the impression he left with a lot of Saudi women who talked to me during my visit to Riyadh and Jeddah last year.

At one dinner party, a female political leader recounted her personal meeting with the King, who said he supported her cause but counseled patience. That palace meeting had taken place some four years earlier—but this woman wasn’t dissuaded. Like others, she pointed to the political pressure he faced from hard-right clerics. She was certain the King was on her side.

No other country in the world bans women from driving, so naturally this has become a litmus test for progress in the Saudi kingdom. The King, known as a “wily politician” popular with his subjects, could easily have just been playing to his audience. After all, a woman was arrested for driving as recently as December.

But there’s no ignoring some of the real, if small, progress on the ground under a King determined to modernize his country. Not long ago—even as a woman protected her modesty under a head-to-toe black burqa—she’d have to buy her bra and panties from some Pakistani guy behind the counter. Women were barred from those kinds of retail sales jobs. Now lingerie and other clothing stores are staffed by women.

Not long ago, an overseas college education was something open only to men. But when King Abdullah announced plans to send 100,000 young Saudis to universities abroad—including the U.S.—on government scholarships, he earmarked roughly a third of them for women (who, nevertheless, must bring along a chaperone). Women now make up the majority of Saudi college graduates and of advanced-degree holders.

And when the King commanded that companies adopt a policy of “Saudization”—hiring Saudis instead of foreign workers—he didn’t specify what gender could fill those quotas. So hard-working women poured into the workforce. According to the Ministry of Labor, 454,000 Saudi women were employed in 2014, compared with 50,000 in 2009, as I noted in a 2014 column for Foreign Affairs.

King Abdullah opened up the Shura Council, a 130-member legislative advisory body, to women members. He gave women the right to run as candidates in local elections, and signed a law permitting women to apply for real estate loans regardless of marital status. (Saudi’s divorce rate rivals that of the U.S.) And now women are—by law, at least—permitted to become licensed attorneys, a development considered critical to protecting female clients in domestic disputes.

These may sound like baby steps to Western women worried about pay equity and the dearth of women CEOs in the Fortune 500. But change is coming.

As one Saudi friend told me: “We are in a correctional phase.” And former U.S. ambassador James Smith described “an emerging critical mass of daughters—on campuses and in jobs—who will make a difference. Saudi men are as proud of their daughters as their sons. I don’t think [the monarchy] has thought through the unintended consequences of that faith in education.”

Those unintended consequences will now be a force that Abdullah’s successor, his 79-year-old half-brother Prince Salman, has to grapple with. Salman has cautioned against fast-paced reforms, including on women’s rights and its been reported that he leans more toward the kingdom’s conservative religious establishment.

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