Zoe Strimpel

Saudi Arabia's attitude to women warrants no praise - despite what our politicians may claim

Are we meant to be over the moon because Saudi Arabia is no longer keeping women covered up under threat of death?


TOPSHOT - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman smiles as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 28, 2022 for a meeting with the French President. - French President Emmanuel Macron host Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for talks in Paris on July 28, 2022, outraging rights groups and the fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP) (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images)

October 03, 2023 14:28

My first experience of a man gushing about Saudi Arabia and how lovely – and misunderstood – a place it is was just before Chanukah. A former high-ranking mandarin took me out for a boozy lunch and let loose. I was taken aback.

I’d always thought it was socially unacceptable, almost uncivilised really, to praise a country with laws and practices those of like Saudi Arabia, which include lashings, floggings, a ban on all sexual or “depraved” behaviour in public, absolutely no alcohol allowed and until recently, a morality police and regular public executions. Then there’s women.

Strict gender segregation in public was enforced until 2019, and women could not drive, were not allowed to leave the house without a male chaperone, do any official or administrative business or any number of things, including work in most places, or to deviate from strict dress codes.

But for those in London who had long enjoyed the Saudi gravy train, 2019 – when Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the Crown Prince known for his modernising tendencies (as well as his suspected role in the brutal murder in Istanbul of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi) began to loosen some restrictions – was a turning point. They could begin to argue with marginal respectability that the cradle of Wahhabism, the most sadistic form of Islam, had genuinely changed. 

This week, the Kingdom got a full-throated endorsement from the top when Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, who is currently trying to push through a deal worth £5bn to sell 48 Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia, praised its approach to women’s rights which, he said, had changed “incredibly quickly”. 

“Forget everything you think you know about Saudi Arabia," Shapps told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference, before going on to praise the “societal changes” it has achieved, pointing to “women in the workplace at levels that would be unimaginable three or four years ago”.

But like a women whose abusive husband claims to have finally changed for real, I have my doubts about the Kingdom’s transformation. In the first place, are we meant to be over the moon because it has granted the most basic rights to women, no longer keeping them locked up or covered up under threat of death? It’s a bit like heaping praise on schools for stopping corporal punishment.

After reading Shapps' comments I spent some time looking up Saudi regulations and attitudes where women are concerned. Is it really a paradise of freedom post-2019? Not quite. The country’s official tourism website offers a special section on women with a view to reassuring and tempting female tourists, citing promising figures about women in the workforce alongside pictures of female guides talking with mixed-sex groups in the desert. 

But what I couldn’t get from such materials was reassurance that it would be hard to get yourself flogged, lashed, detained, or heavily fined for doing something that is utterly par for the course in any remotely liberal country – and which one might therefore do reflexively. 

Even now, women must dress “modestly” – so it’s not really all that free – and atheism and religious dissent are legally punishable by death. Kissing in public would be extremely ill-advised, as would other public displays of affection.

Political activism and dissent, not just religious dissent, remain genuinely dangerous. The Kingdom claims to have no political prisoners, but human rights organisations say there are hundreds, including women’s rights activists, though some have been released since 2021. One interesting case is that of Loujain al-Hathloul, locked up in 2018 and allegedly tortured for fighting for women’s rights to drive – in a sadistic twist, she remained incarcerated until 2021, when the ban on women driving was lifted in 2019.

And then there is the question of whether it’s quite kosher for a Jew to be praising an Islamic kingdom the way Shapps did, Typhoon jets or no. 

Certainly, in the 2000s, long before the Abraham Accords and talk of normalisation of relations between Israel and Gulf states, there was widespread anti-Jewish rhetoric of the foulest type. School textbooks depicted Jews as apes and worse.  

In 2004, a TV channel did a segment on everyday attitudes towards Jews, asking people on the street to describe their feelings about our people. Not one had anything good to say: we were their “eternal enemies", "murderous", "the enemies of Allah and His Prophet," "murderers of prophets," "the filthiest people on the face of this earth” and so on.

Has it all changed there too? As with the apparent gender revolution, I have my doubts that a leopard so deeply marked with antisemitic spots can change overnight.

But then again, geopolitics and market requirements can do wild things fast. Israelis and Jews are to be found on business in Saudi quite regularly now; the Israeli tourism minister Haim Katz went on an official visit last month, and while currently there are no formal diplomatic relations (or flights) between Israel and Riyadh, there are reports of Israelis soon being able to fly to Saudi’s Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir as the “gradual” normalisation talks continue.

I’m fine with normalisation between Israel and Saudi – the more allies the Jewish state has in its own neck of the woods, the better.

But I'm not sure I’m fine with a Jewish man praising what is still a repressive state – a theocracy – with gay abandon, when it is highly unlikely he’d want his own daughters to live there. The leopard may be changing its spots, but the change has to be more than just skin deep. 

October 03, 2023 14:28

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