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Social reforms at a snail’s pace

To be seen as a statesman, the Saudi Prince needs to free political prisoners and end the Yemen war

In an interview in April 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) hinted that the country’s male guardianship laws, which leave the legal and personal affairs of women in the hands of their male relatives, would be changed. “Before 1979 [the year of Iranian revolution and the Siege of Mecca] there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws. It doesn’t go back to the time of the Prophet... we want to move on,” he told The Atlantic magazine.

Sixteen months later, Saudi Arabia has amended the guardianship system. Under the new laws, women of 21 years or above may obtain passports, which will allow them to travel without male consent. They will also be permitted to register marriages, divorces, births and deaths and to receive family records. This follows last year’s landmark decision to allow women to drive.

MBS has rightly been credited for these initiatives. After he rose to the current position, he initiated several economic and social reform measures. His ‘Vision 2030’ plan aims to lessen Saudi Arabia’s near-total dependence on oil. It also promotes private enterprises, promises to raise women’s participation in workforce, which is currently 22%, and to turn the country into a global investment favourite. Easing social restrictions has been an important part of this drive. While the goal is laudable, there are three fundamental problems with the model.

A complicated legacy

First, MBS is not the benign, visionary reformer that he’s often presented as. His legacy is more complicated. The story of his rise to power is also a story of a brutal purge. He detained dozens of royals and businessmen in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in November 2017 for weeks in the name of fighting corruption. The detentions lacked any legal basis and were inconsistent with the Saudi government’s push to attract private investments. More worryingly, in recent years, the country has cracked down on both dissidents and rights campaigners. Political reform remains a taboo topic. Three prominent women’s rights activists — Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada — who wanted the guardianship laws to be changed, are still under arrest.

Gender equality

Second, the social reforms are too little and too slow. True, women being allowed to drive and travel without male consent are big measures in the Wahhabi Kingdom, where the guardianship laws effectively make them second-class citizens. But from a universal rights perspective, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go before treating its women citizens equally. The guardianship system survives despite the latest laws. A Saudi woman still needs a guardian’s permission to exit shelters (for abuse victims) or be freed from prison. She still needs a guardian’s consent for marriage. A man can still divorce his wife without her consent.

Third, the incremental reforms might boost the Crown Prince’s image at home, but his foreign policy record is awful. A UN investigation recently held the “Saudi state” (euphemism for MBS, the de facto ruler) directly responsible for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist who was killed inside the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018. Saudi authorities still haven’t disclosed what happened to his body, while Turkish prosecutors had claimed that the body was dismembered and disposed using acid. Besides, the war MBS launched in 2015 in Yemen has turned the country into a humanitarian catastrophe. It’s difficult to overlook the argument that MBS is using the reform card to amass more powers at home and divert criticism of his ruthless interventions abroad. If he wants to change Saudi Arabia and remake himself as a reformer-statesman, he should perhaps step up the pace of social and political reforms, release the political prisoners and rights campaigners, and bring the war in Yemen to an end.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jul 15, 2020 1:44:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/social-reforms-at-a-snails-pace/article28872167.ece

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