The Days of Decrees and Habitual Tokenism are Gone

AliThe Saudi regime has recently appointed thirty women to the nation’s Consultative Council, a move glorified by Saudi authorities as a step toward greater women’s equality in the kingdom. But a closer look at these appointments and the nature of the council itself is needed to see this maneuver for what it is: a duplicitous attempt to bury women’s rights.

If King Abdullah and his family’s intent had been to embark upon genuine reform, they could have appointed an independent and inclusive national committee to select a list of well-known advocates of women’s rights and submitted the names to the King to choose from.

The list could have included well-known advocates for women’s rights like Wajeha Al-Hwaider, Fowzia Al-Bker, Hatoon Al-Fasi, Reem Asaad, Alia Banaja, Faiza Ambah, Bidriyah Al-Bisher, Fowzia Alyouni, Princess Reema Bint Bandar, Lina Almaeena, Sammar Fatani, Souad Al-Shammari, Princess Basma Bint Saud, Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, Iman Al-Nafjan, Ibtihal Mubarak, Hala Al-Dosari, Suhaila Hammad, Mody Al-Khalaf, Lubna Husain, Nadeen Al-Budair, Thuraya Al-Shiri, Simmer Al-Migrin, Ameerah Kashgari, Manal Al-Sharif, Samar Badawi, Abeer Mishkhas, and Halima Muthafer, just to name a few.

Instead, the King and his advisors appointed a host of mostly unknown women who, though skilled in scientific research and other professional fields, lack the credentials and the experience to be effective advocates for women’s rights. Moreover, the Consultative Council to which these thirty women have been appointed to is an entirely powerless agency beholden to the King with no chance or intention of bringing peaceful power structure change without which stability in Saudi Arabia will continue to worsen.

The Saudi government and its supporters, both inside and outside the country, continue to underestimate the Saudi people, especially women. Through purely cosmetic moves such as these appointments, the detached regime expects that millions of well-informed Saudi women will sit still while the world around them transforms and women elsewhere are able to choose their own destinies. Not only is this expectation delusional, but it will likely convince many Saudis that inclusiveness and political participation can only be obtained by force instead of political engagement, a prospect that could hold dire consequences for the country and the international community, especially the US.

An outspoken female royal, Princess Ameerah Altaweel agrees with this conclusion. “People take their voices to the streets when they are not heard by their governments” she once said. “If we want stability in the region, we must build institutions of civil society so people can channel their demands through these institutions.” Yet building such institutions and avenues for reform is currently impossible in Saudi Arabia, as the monarchy has banned all forms of independent civil organizations and assemblies, as well as freedom of religious and political expression.

And while the Saudi government justifies the marginalized status of women in the kingdom on Islamic grounds, another Saudi Princess, Basma Bint Saud has openly expressed deep resentment at the authorities’ use of religion to impede progress on women’s rights. “Our religion should not be a shield behind which we hide from the world but a driving force that inspires us to innovate and contribute to our surroundings.”

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Other royals are speaking up in favor of political reform as well. In a recorded phone conversation, Prince Turki bin Bandar Al-Saud compared his family’s rule with that of Hitler and the Pharaohs. Prince Talal has been a vocal critic of his family’s totalitarianism for more than fifty years. He has repeatedly called for a constitutional monarchy, free elections of national and local assemblies and empowerment of women. He has also accused his family of exercising absolute control over every aspect of people’s lives: “Here, the family is the master and the ruler… This style can’t continue the same way. There has to be change in the nature of authority, if things are going to change in the kingdom itself.”

None of these royal critics is advocating the annihilation of the monarchy. On the contrary, they, like the rest of their large family, believe that the country is their birthright. However, they fear that their power might come to a violent end if tangible reforms are not embraced. It has become increasingly clear that some Saudi royals are realizing that the safest option available to the ruling family is concrete political inclusiveness. King Abdullah’s selection of thirty women to join the powerless advisory council may have short-lived psychological impact, but does nothing to change the nation’s power structure, and that type of change is the only real gateway to peaceful reforms and stability.

The US, the Saudi monarchy’s closest superpower ally, is in a position to help facilitate political transition instead of strengthening an absolute and globally resented monarchy as myopically recommended by the Brookings’ Saban Center in a bigoted memorandum to President Obama. Like the rest of the Arab masses, many of the Saudi people are inching toward a point of desperation and unless their expectancies and aspirations are addressed, they will take to the streets which the Saban Center’s memorandum speciously counseled President Obama to prevent.

Emphasizing tangible political reform instead of strengthening the autocratic Saudi monarchy will spare the US the agony of having to intervene militarily to protect a regime which rules by coercion. Saudi Arabia is too important a country to leave its fate in the hands of men who rely on sheer force, handouts and religious extremism to maintain absolute control over a burgeoning generation of restless young men and women who spend more time tweeting about their worldly aspirations and frustration than going to mosques and praying for divine deliverance.

Dr. Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountability. Read other articles by Ali.