GIRLS STAND next to a poster depicting Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (right) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2017. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/REEM BAESHEN)
If you are a Saudi woman with a high school diploma, between the ages of 25 and 35, at least 155 centimeters (5’1”) tall and in good physical condition, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman may want you in the Saudi Arabia defense forces.
Last week, the crown prince, known as MBS, took his ambitious reform program a step further by opening the ranks of non-combat positions in the military to women.
According to two leading Israeli analysts of Saudi Arabia, Joshua Teitelbaum of Bar-Ilan University’s Besa Center and Brandon Friedman of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, bringing about greater equality for women is an integral part of MBS’s drive to transform Saudi Arabia into a more open and modern 21st century society and to diversify its economy beyond oil exports.
“In analyzing reform you have to compare declaration to implementation.
But here even the declaration is important,” Friedman said.
“It’s signaling a new direction and if you look back five to ten years, it’s almost an unthinkable direction.”
In Teitelbaum’s view, this and other recent gains for women add up to “serious change for Saudi Arabia. Apparently Muhammad bin Salman has enough popularity and feels himself strong enough that he can do this. And he’s moving forward.”
“He’s trying to ween Saudi Arabia from oil and paint it as a modern state, a more normal state with less influence of the religious establishment, a state with moderate Islam, not radical Islam,” Teitelbaum added. “It’s quite an agenda but he is still alive and hasn’t been dethroned and we’ll see how it goes.”
The one major shadow hanging over MBS is the unsuccessful war in Yemen, which he launched but for which he lacks an exit strategy, Teitelbaum said.
MBS’s first nod to women was to restrain the powers of the religious police, Friedman noted. The legal system has also been adjusted to provide for a more equitable treatment of women. In September, King Salman announced that as of June, women would be allowed to drive. In January, they were allowed to attend soccer matches for the first time.
According to Gulf News, Saudi authorities opened 140 jobs in air traffic control at airports to female applicants in January. The newspaper said the government was overwhelmed with more than 100,000 applications.
Despite the gains, Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship remains intact and even the female soldiers will continue to have male guardians. According to the system, women must obtain permission from men to travel and marry and in some instances to work or undergo health treatments.
The women conscripts and their male guardians will have to live in the region where the army position is offered. But, Teitelbaum says he would not be surprised if MBS does away with guardianship at some point. “It’s a tough one but once you start liberalizing, it’s hard to stop,” he says.
Gulf News quoted Iqbal Dandari, a female member of the Shura Advisory Council to the monarchy, as calling last month for mandatory conscription for all Saudi men and women. “Women must be trained to serve their country and defend themselves and their homeland in case of a crisis, war or attack in any region,” she said. Dandari added that Saudi women are naturally strong and valiant so all Saudis will feel more comfortable knowing that well-trained women are defending the country.
In Friedman’s view, MBS is serious in his bid to transform women’s status. “My feeling is that as part of his broader program for the kingdom, he realizes the kingdom needs women. And the only way he can get women to buy into what he’s trying to do, to transform the Saudi social contract, is to provide them with a greater stake to take part in Saudi society.”
According to the old social contract, individual Saudis ceded the right to participate in the political life of the kingdom in exchange for the kingdom providing for them with its vast oil wealth.
Realizing that due to demographic change and limited oil wealth this model is no longer sustainable, MBS is “trying to create a more diverse political economy that incentivizes Saudis to participate in the workforce and to create economic opportunity,” Friedman says. “The only way you can do that is to maximize your human capital.
You have to give women a chance.”