Saudi Arabia and Women’s Rights
ahead of the G20 Riyadh Summit
By Sophie Smith
As host of the G20 this year, Saudi Arabia has placed women empowerment as one of its top priorities. Under the overarching theme ‘Realizing the Opportunities of the 21st Century for All,’ the Kingdom emphasises women and labour participation, financial inclusion and access to opportunities. This is designed to address social and economic inequalities between men and women, allowing the latter to reach their full potential while encouraging sustainable and inclusive development. It comes as part of a broader set of reforms in Saudi Arabia aimed at integrating women into the workforce to increase their participation to 30 percent by 2030 under Vision 2030, an initiative designed to diversify the economy and encourage social changes in line with the UN Sustainable Developments Goals.
Advancements in Women’s Rights
In recent years, Saudi Arabia introduced several measures in favour of women’s rights, slowly dismantling the male guardianship system, which requires women to ask a male guardian for permission to perform day-to-day tasks. Under the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the first female Vice-Minister was appointed in 2009 and, in 2011, women were granted the right to vote and run in local elections. Two years later, women were appointed for the first time to the Shura Council and since then, at least one fifth of the 150-member consultative body has to be composed of women representatives. When King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud acceded to power in 2015, this trend continued and a 2016 directive cut the powers of the religious police, meaning, for example, they can no longer arrest women for mixing with men outside of their family.
Such developments accelerated in 2017 following the appointment of Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) as Crown Prince. The Kingdom issued an order to allow women access to government services without requiring consent from their male guardian in 2017. A year later, women were granted the right to drive, ridding Saudi Arabia of its title as the only country which forbade females from driving. Similarly, in 2018, MBS stated in an interview with CBS News that women do not need to wear a head covering or black abaya as long as they dress respectfully. And, from September 2019, female tourists no longer needed to wear a headscarf or an abaya at all. Earlier that year, in January 2019, the Women in the Workplace initiative was introduced, which required equal pay for women amongst other measures. In keeping with this development, in July 2019, the government passed three laws pertaining to the male guardianship system. The first stipulated that all citizens may work without discrimination based on gender, disability or age. Specifically, it became illegal for employers to require the approval of the male guardian to hire a woman. Another law gave women the right to register their child’s birth at the civil status office, as well as inform the office of death, marriage and divorce. The third law concerned travel, enabling women over 21 years of age to obtain passports without the approval of their male guardian and, later in mid-August, they were allowed to travel without their guardian’s permission. More recently, in February 2020, the Kingdom launched a female football league, and, in July 2020, the court ruled that Saudi women living alone should not be punished.
Despite these changes, impediments to gender equality remain in place. Saudi women continue to require their male guardian’s consent to marry and leave prison, for example, and face discrimination concerning child custody and divorce. Further, the Women in the Workplace initiative still stipulates that females may only work in ‘fields suitable to their nature,’ meaning women are excluded from certain activities. In tandem, although female victims of domestic abuse can file a claim against their abuser, the accused can counteract this by filing a case for ‘disobedience,’ which, if won, means the victim is either forced to return home or is imprisoned. Consequently, victims often do not report the crime, and several have even fled the country as a result. Moreover, there are still several women’s rights activists imprisoned since 2018 prior to the lifting of the driving ban.
Within this context, Saudi Arabia was labelled as one of the economies with the most progress towards gender equality since 2017 in the World Bank’s Women, Business and The Law 2020 report; the report attributed this advancement to the increases in freedom of movement and economic opportunities for women as a result of the aforementioned reforms. Yet, gender parity in Saudi Arabia remains limited with the Kingdom ranking 146 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2020. However, the Kingdom has seen a positive increase in its score over the years; since 2017, its score increased from 0.584 (2017) to 0.599 (2020) (on a scale from 0-1 where 1 is the most equal). In fact, the number of females enrolled in tertiary education (69.9 percent) exceeds that of their male counterparts (66.3 percent). With regard to the Saudi workforce, female labour force participation has risen over the years and is now at 24.6 percent. Women make up 16.4 percent of legislators, senior officials and managers, a sharp increase since 2017 when they accounted for a mere 5.8 percent. Women also account for 20 percent of the Shura Council, the Kingdom’s Consultative body. There is still much to do as women remain a minority in the workforce compared to their male counterpart, who account for 81.5 percent of labour force participation. Also, women do not yet hold ministerial positions and tend to work in lower paid jobs or part-time, which partly explains their average income of $17,800 compared to the male’s $75,200. However, Saudi Arabia has taken significant strides in recent years, which should be recognised and encouraged. This has occurred against the backdrop of women gaining more rights in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as they attempt to diversify their economies and modernise their societies. As a host of the G20, Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to build on this and further empower females. In doing so, women will be able to realise their full potential, contributing towards creating a more resilient and prosperous national economy.
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 Ibid.; Saudi Press Agency. “Official source at the Ministry of Interior: The Passports and Civil Affairs departments begin to apply the amendments stipulated in the Royal Decree modifying the travel and civil affairs documents systems.” Saudi Press Agency, August 20, 2019. https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=1960360.
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 Ibid.; World Economic Forum. Global Gender Gap Report 2017.
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