Saudi Arabia: be grateful to the Crown Prince — or else …

Image: Human Rights Watch

In Saudi Arabia it’s not uncommon for a man to divorce his wife without telling her. This isn’t because Saudi men are especially forgetful — it’s a way of avoiding expense, since an ex-wife who thinks she is still married can’t claim alimony or other entitlements.

To put a stop to this abuse, the Saudi justice ministry has begun sending text messages to newly-divorced wives informing them of their changed status, along with details of how to obtain the relevant legal documentation. There’s also a website where women can check whether they have been divorced without their knowledge.

While this is certainly a step forward, the fact that it’s needed at all shows how far the kingdom is from achieving real gender equality. In the case of divorce, the fundamental problem — and one that is culturally much more difficult to address — is that the law allows a man to terminate his marriage unilaterally without any input or representation on the woman’s part.

One of the few positive things that can be said about the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is that despite his disastrous military adventure in Yemen, his ridiculous feud with Qatar, his mass kidnapping of wealthy Saudis in order to extort money from them and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he has shown himself amenable to social change. Well, up to a point.

At long last, women are allowed to drive and in some ways everyday life is becoming less restrictive. The ban on cinemas and mixed-gender concerts has been lifted and the once-feared mutawa — the religious police — have been brought to heel.

Less-noticed by international media, there have been significant changes in other areas too. Pregnant women, rather than their non-pregnant male guardians, can now make key decisions regarding childbirth. They have government permission to decide how they want the baby to be delivered and they no longer need a man’s signature to obtain information about the status of their pregnancy.

The new system for notifying women of divorce is only the latest of several steps aimed at bringing recalcitrant ex-husbands into line. Last June the ministry warned that men who flout court orders for alimony payments face fines and up to seven years in prison.

To tackle the problem of late payments, which can leave women and children temporarily without means of support, it has also announced a special fund modelled on the British Child Maintenance Service. By 2022, according to the ministry’s calculations, around 155,000 people will be benefiting from the fund.

Feminists under attack

Positive as these developments may be, they have also brought out a darker side. Feminists have come under attack, not only from opponents of women’s rights (as might be expected) but, more surprisingly, from the chief architect of the ‘reforms’ — Crown Prince Mohammed himself.

The prince appears to be pushing in two opposite directions. This might seem odd but it becomes more explicable if we stop trying to view his ‘reforms’ as part of a liberalisation process. In reality, the aim is not to liberalise but to make the kingdom’s creaking autocracy more fit for purpose by modernising and strengthening it.

Crown Prince Mohammed: modernising autocracy

Last year, shortly before the ban on female drivers was lifted, the authorities launched a crackdown against women’s rights activists. Some (including veteran campaigners for the right to drive) were arrested and others were placed under travel restrictions.

Local media reported that nine of them — four women and five men — would be referred to the Specialised Criminal Court, originally set up to try suspected terrorists, on charges of “cooperating with entities hostile to the kingdom”, “recruiting persons in a sensitive government agency to obtain confidential information to harm the interests of the kingdom” and “providing financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad”.

Since then, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have voiced concern about allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Amnesty International said it had obtained three separate testimonies that the activists were repeatedly tortured by electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly.

“In one reported instance,” it said, “one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling, and according to another testimony, one of the detained women was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment, by interrogators wearing face masks.”

In December, Human Rights Watch suggested this had been carried out under the authority of Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s “enforcer”, who is also suspected of playing a key role in the murder of Khashoggi.

Ignoring rights but granting privileges

The apparent purpose of these arrests was to serve as a reminder that in Saudi Arabia, as in other autocracies, change must be seen to come from the top: that permission to drive cars is a gift from the Crown Prince — for which women should be grateful to him — rather than the result of campaigning by activists. In other words, rights are to be seen not as an entitlement but as a privilege granted from on high, and one that can be taken away again by the same means.

In this situation, the round-up of feminist campaigners is not so much an exception as part of the normal pattern. To operate legally in Saudi Arabia, civil society organisations need permission from the king, and those who dare to ask can easily end up in trouble.

In 2006, for example, Musa al-Qarni and three other men petitioned King Abdullah for permission to form an Islamic organisation to discuss “freedom, justice, equality, citizenship, pluralism, [proper] advice, and the role of women.” They never had a reply. A few months later, Qarni was arrested and carted off to jail after secret police commandos stormed a villa in Jeddah where several men “widely known for their advocacy on issues of social and political reform” were meeting.

Historically, the kingdom’s political detainees have mostly been men; the increased focus on female activists is a fairly recent development which some, no doubt, will view as a sign of progress towards gender quality.

Trying to curb citizen activism raises serious questions about the viability of the crown prince’s showcase project, the Vision 2030 plan which envisages social change (though not, of course, political change). Social change is not something that can be achieved by royal edict; it requires a major shift in attitudes among the public — in particular, among Saudi men.

This won’t happen unless current attitudes are seriously challenged, and that can’t be done from the royal palaces. It needs widespread participation and engagement at grassroots level — with feminists included. That, though, is not the sort of participation the prince approves of, because he could easily lose control of it.

Bread and circuses

The sort of public participation the prince welcomes and encourages is spelled out in the national “Quality of Life” programme. The aim, it says, is to “enhance the participation of citizens and residents in cultural, entertainment and sport activities”, and it’s basically an updated version of the bread and circuses principle in ancient Rome. Keep the mob fed and entertained, and they will remain docile.

The “bread” part of this has long been deployed in the wealthy Gulf states — for example, by creating unnecessary government jobs to keep down unemployment. Financial constraints have been making it more difficult, though, so “circuses” are a useful new addition.

Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, is already some way along that road. Three years ago it established a “National Happiness and Positivity Programme” and appointed the world’s first Minister for Happiness.

It’s trickier, though, in Saudi Arabia where the religious puritans generally regard almost anything enjoyable as sinful. While previous rulers have been wary of confronting the religious authorities over this, Prince Mohammed seems to have fewer qualms — and in that area he clearly has support from the younger generation.

Rahaf Mohammed: denounced as ‘delinquent’

One survey of 20-year-old Saudi males found that half of them wanted to “have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and be able to drive fast cars”. They welcomed that sort of social change until asked how they would feel about their sisters going on dates, attending mixed gender parties, dressing freely, etc — at which point they had second thoughts.

For men like these, the restrictions on women’s freedom are less of a problem than the women who challenge them. Rahaf Mohammed, who escaped from her family and barricaded herself in a Thai hotel room before being granted asylum in Canada, was hailed in the west as a courageous feminist seeking to avoid an arranged marriage (among other things).

Feminism as terrorism

In Saudi Arabia, though, women like Rahaf are seen as wayward and rebellious, and public sympathies lie mainly on the other side — with her family. The kingdom’s government-backed human rights organisation even accused foreign governments of inciting “delinquents” like her to rebel against family values.

Social change won’t happen on a significant scale unless traditional values can be challenged but the kingdom’s legal system is set up to prevent it. Sons and daughters who show uqouq — disobedience or disrespect — can be hauled up before a judge by their parents. During one six-month period in 2014, according to local media, 163 such cases were heard by the courts.

For some, these youngsters are not asserting their freedom. They are being led astray by evil forces in the same way that others are recruited by terrorists. In a post on Twitter (subsequently deleted following protests), Mohammed al-Ahaidib, a journalist with Okaz, one of the leading Saudi newspapers, wrote:

“The internal devils who incite girls to rebel must be eliminated forcefully in the national and public interest and we must subject those corrupters to God’s law in the same way we applied it to contain terrorism …”

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.