Noteworthy but not enough

The Saudis announce a new round of important reforms – they need to do much more.

 Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (photo credit: FAISAL AL NASSER/ REUTERS)
Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this month announced a series of sweeping reforms aimed at empowering women.
It’s not nearly enough, but these are noteworthy and important moves after a toxic and painful year in Saudi Arabia.
In 2017 and 2018, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) embarked on a series of high-profile and quite positive social and economic reforms that captured global attention and praise.
Unfortunately, the effect of these reforms was seriously marred by the Kingdom’s near-simultaneous crackdown on internal dissent and political activity.
The entire reform agenda then came to a screeching halt after the unconscionable murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. The Royal Palace became consumed by the international firestorm over the murder and could focus on little else.
MBS has denied ordering the murder. Still, 11 other Saudi officials of varying seniority were indicted and arrested in Riyadh in the charge of murdering Khashoggi. As the legal process continues, five of the Saudi officials face the death penalty.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, rightly imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi officials for their alleged involvement in the macabre murder, while stopping short of censuring MBS or downgrading ties with the kingdom, as many in Washington have urged.
While many questions remain over exactly who ordered Khashoggi’s murder and why, the kingdom’s reputation in Washington and many world capitals has taken a catastrophic hit. Numerous commentators have openly speculated that MBS might be removed from the line of succession and that his Vision 2030 blueprint for reform might be scrapped altogether.
Yet this new round of reforms provides significant evidence that the crown prince still has his father’s confidence and that the Vision 2030 plan is once again moving forward.
“You may have seen the reports about the kingdom’s decision to remove the obstacles on women’s mobility [and] I wanted to make sure that you saw [the details],” a senior Saudi official wrote to me from Riyadh last week.
“This decision affirms the kingdom’s commitment to its vision in realizing the full potential of Saudi women, and their full integration into our society,” the official continued. “This is driven by our leadership’s belief that the empowerment of women is a central pillar of Vision 2030, that we cannot move forward if half of the population does not enjoy equal rights before the law, and that our development goals are unattainable without gender equality.
“This decision, significant as it may be, is only one part of the long line of decisions that demonstrate our leadership’s commitment to the empowerment of women under Vision 2030 and improving the quality of life for all people in the country,” the official added. “These reforms so far have included sweeping reforms to empower Saudi women, [such as]….”
• Independence: At age 22, women (and men) are free to work and travel without approval of a guardian.
• Equality: Women are guaranteed equal protection and equal pay in the workplace.
• Status: Women can finally be considered “head of the household” according to the law.
• Empowerment: Women can now fully and independently manage legal and business affairs.
REUTERS PROVIDED more details, noting that “a series of royal decrees published by the official gazette... also grant women for the first time the right to register child birth, marriage or divorce and to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to children who are minors.
“Riyadh has long endured international censure over the status of women, who rights groups say are often treated as second-class citizens under rules requiring them to get the consent of a male guardian for important decisions throughout their entire lives, regardless of age,” Reuters noted.
The news service also cited Muna Abu Sulayman, a prominent Saudi influencer and a former talk show host, who celebrated the new reforms on Twitter.
“A generation growing up completely free and equal to their brothers,” she wrote, referring specifically to the new freedom for Saudi women to travel.
Like many, I have been deeply conflicted by the events of the past year in Riyadh.
I very much want to see the Saudis reform and modernize their society, dramatically improve the human rights environment for women, as well as for Christians and others, and work closely with the West – and with Israel – to boost economic growth and geopolitical security and stability in the Middle East.
Yet I was horrified by the Khashoggi murder, and am profoundly uncomfortable by the refusal of the kingdom, thus far, to understand just how much damage its human rights record is doing to the lives of real people, as well as to the kingdom’s ability to attract direct foreign investment and tourists.
Cutting the Saudis loose – or insisting MBS step down – is not the way forward. We live in an imperfect world. We have to make imperfect choices and work with imperfect allies. But we always can and should urge our friends and allies to do better.
The White House and US State Department should, therefore, continue publicly standing side-by-side with the Saudis while privately but clearly telling the king and crown prince the truth.
• Justice must be done in the Khashoggi affair. Period.
• Innocent Saudis who have been unfairly and unnecessarily imprisoned should be released promptly. Why undermine smart reforms with repressive moves impossible to explain to the very governments, CEOs and investors needed to help the kingdom advance?
• Reforms to dramatically improve social, economic and religious freedom for all Saudis should be accelerated, consistent with Vision 2030 objectives. Bold and consistent reform is the kingdom’s only way forward.
• Riyadh would also be wise to take specific, tangible steps towards peace with Israel, consistent with their own national interests. Allowing Israeli airlines to fly to and over the kingdom would be a good next step. Inviting Israeli journalists to Riyadh to interview senior Saudi officials would also be useful. Indeed, inviting a delegation of Jewish leaders from both the US and Israel to meet with Saudi royals would be a very encouraging move, just as they invited me last year to bring the first-ever delegation of Evangelical leaders to meet with MBS and other senior officials.
Given the growing Iran threat, and the importance of fighting terrorism and making regional peace, the US-Saudi alliance must be strengthened.
This will be immensely easier to accomplish if Americans see Riyadh making far more progress on the reform front in the last half of 2019 and into 2020 than we have seen over the past 12 months. The latest reforms to empower women were a good start, but far more is needed.
The writer is a dual US-Israeli citizen and a New York Times best-selling author who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons. His latest political thriller, The Persian Gamble, was released in March.