The Prime Minister in a visit to Saudi Arabia last week said the ties between the UK and Saudia Arabia were important for security and prosperity. She said that a positive relationship was in the “British national interest” and she hoped her visit would herald a further intensification in relations between the two countries.
The UK has committed to becoming a leading partner for Saudi Arabia in delivering their ‘Vision 2030’ programme. The programme is a government road map for economic and developmental growth. In particular, the UK will share best practice on healthcare and education.
However, the UK Government has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, notably the rights of women in the Kingdom. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office voiced concern about the inability of women to participate equally in society in a recent report. And the Prime Minister has said publicly that she has raised women’s rights issues with the Saudis on a number of occasions and that she hoped that her visit to the Kingdom would show what women could achieve.
In its most recent Global Gender Gap report, the World Economic Forum places Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries and says little progress has been made in the country with women still facing discrimination in a number of areas such as economic and political participation, health, and education.
When Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 2005, the Government justified the exclusion of women by saying that election workers could not verify women's identity since many did not have an identity card. Human Rights Watch described this as a preposterous excuse. Women were only granted to run for office in municipal elections in 2011 by King Abdullah, with women first being able to cast their ballot in the 2015 elections.
Despite the 2015 municipal elections resulting in the election or appointment of 38 women to councils, women still face significant discrimination within the political system. Female candidates, for example, were forced to use social media to contact voters because of the restrictions on women meeting with men. Furthermore, authorities have ordered that the councils must be segregated by sex, with women members sitting in separate rooms away from their male colleagues and participating only by video link.
Historically, women in Saudi Arabia have experienced a greatly diminished legal status. Women were only granted voluntary identity cards in 2001, necessary for example to open a bank account. Prior to this, a woman in Saudi Arabia were reliant on a male relative to confirm their identity before they could open a bank account.
Today, male guardianship laws place great restrictions on women. Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, study at higher education or to marry, and are required to provide guardian consent in order to work or to access healthcare.. Women remain legally subordinate and inferior in status to men in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.
Human Rights Watch believe that, in maintaining this male guardianship system, Saudi Arabia is undermining women’s most basic rights and will be unable to satisfy their commitments in the ‘Vision 2030’ report which declares women to be a “great asset” whose talents will be developed for the good of the country’s society and economy.
Restrictions on freedom
Authorities continue to restrict women's freedom: for example, preventing women from driving and limiting what women are allowed to wear. Women’s dress code in Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law with all women having to wear a headscarf and an abaya, a long cloak.
The Shoura Council, the consultative assembly of Saudi Arabia responsible for proposing laws as well as the King’s Advisory body, recently ruled that women TV anchors working in Saudi Arabia should have to wear modest dress and not show off their beauty.
Violence against women
Sexual and domestic violence against women remains a persistent issue in Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development in Saudi Arabia reported that it encountered 8,016 cases of physical and psychological abuse between 2004 and 2005, most involving violence between spouses.
Amnesty International report that women are inadequately protected against sexual or other forms of violence. Legal guardianship rules have made it difficult for women to report incidents to the police or to seek protection. .
Saudi Arabia remains a key economic and security ally of the United Kingdom. However, women’s rights are still not respected in Saudi Arabia. With ongoing concerns about a lack of progress on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the UK Government is likely to come under increased pressure to take a tougher approach with its ally.
Michael Hough is Research Assistant at Bright Blue