The latest reports of Saudi concessions on human rights might as well be called Operation Rebrand Saudi Arabia. Of 225 demands issued by the U.N. human rights council in 2013, the Saudi delegation conceded to 180.
Over the past couple of days, Saudi representatives have been on BBC’s Newsnight, CNN’s Amanpour and other outlets billing this as a landmark step in the right direction, sanctioned by no less a person than the king himself. However, look into the fine print and problems arise. There is a great deal of language that sounds like kicking the human rights can further down the road. Lots of “in principles” and “under reviews” and “holistic approaches”.
First, however, the good news. Saudi Arabia has, “in principle”, accepted one of the most comprehensive overhauls of its human rights system in history, conceding that aspects of law enforcement and regulation of political assembly and freedom of speech should be brought in line with international standards. This is an admission that there are serious problems, a rare acknowledgement from the country.
But what about women’s rights? The right to drive and the male guardianship system? These are the totems of the country’s backwardness in the international community. There is some strong, encouraging language about guardianship, where Saudi proposes “phasing out” the guardianship system altogether.
But, unsurprisingly, the language on the driving ban is a bit vaguer, mainly guaranteeing “women’s rights to free travel”.
The Saudi representative on BBC Newsnight had come to the interview prepared to talk about all the splendid recommendations they had accepted, only to be interrupted by anchorman Jeremy Paxman repeatedly asking him if women could now drive. The representative could not come up with a simple “yes”.
The rebranding is of course, part of a wider national repositioning. Saudi Arabia finds itself slightly at sea. It was a country that could happily go about its business knowing that it was both an indispensable ally to the West and a regional economic and religious powerhouse. But the volatility of the Arab Spring, Qatar’s rise as a capricious Gulf neighbour, and America’s philosophical withdrawal from what it now sees as an unpredictable Arab world, have left Saudi Arabian policymakers scrambling to carve out a new place for the country. Tackling these taboos would reap the most positive goodwill for Saudi Arabia, and show that it really does mean business.
( Note: Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer and commentator who lives in London ) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014
The language on the driving ban is vague, mainly guaranteeing ‘women’s rights to free travel’.