Women's Rights under Mohammed bin Salman

Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has exported one of the most rigid, intolerant forms of radical Islam. Events in the late 1970s and early 1980s led to a shift in Saudi culture towards an extremely conservative interpretation of Islamic holy law. The religious establishment gained a substantial amount influence over the regime, and solidified its control by becoming the primary power that granted legitimacy to the ruling family. 

The most visible manifestation of the power of this conservative establishment is its stranglehold over the issue of women’s rights. Saudi Arabia has consistently been ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for gender equality.[i] Needless to say, this has been extremely deleterious to Saudi Arabia’s  international image, and has hindered its modernization.

There have been numerous reforms in Saudi Arabia, which promise a future in which Saudi women will be able participate more fully in society.[ii] However, the entrenched conservative values instilled by the powerful religious institution and encouraged by the regime have done their part to make reform slow, and often, ineffective. Even after educational reforms and initiatives to increase female participation in the workforce, in 2014 “women still [made] up less than 16 percent of the national workforce.”[iii] Years of constructed values have restricted the progress of women’s rights, and have made reforms that are formalized ineffective in practice. 

Since crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MbS, has taken power in Saudi Arabia, the women’s rights movement has gained speed, with the young leader promising to make Saudi women a valuable addition to the Saudi economy.[iv] This is part of Vision 2030, his ambitious plan to reform the economic structure of Saudi Arabia in anticipation of the nation’s dwindling oil supply. Realizing that his plan will depend on his ability to change the culture of Saudi society within as well as improving the perception of Saudi Arabia abroad, MbS has used targeted top-down policies to “bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation—whence it diverted in 1979.”[v] As part of his cultural reforms, MbS lessened the power of the religious police and overturned conservative laws limiting entertainment. Most notably, he has granted women the right to drive.  

In this paper, I examine how and why the religious establishment obtained such a stranglehold on the issue of women’s rights, and describe the ways in which its beliefs have taken hold in Saudi society, thus confining women to certain spaces. I speak about the goals of the young crown prince, and his role in the women’s rights movement. I focus on the law allowing women to drive because this particular event was so highly publicized, even while its actual effects on Saudi women are marginal. I argue that MbS’s granted women the right to drive to improve his country’s image, while also retaining the support of the religious establishment that grants him legitimacy. 

A commonly-held misconception is that the conservative interpretation of Shari ‘a, and by extension the strict laws about the behavior of women, is traditional to Saudi Arabia. The religious institution and conservative members in society would likely argue that the restrictions on a woman’s place and behavior are set by verses in the Qur’an, but this is not true either. The fact that Saudi Arabia has such extraordinary restrictions on women’s behavior while other Muslim countries that follow Shari ‘a do not shows that “There is no sound authority to convince anyone that Islam prescribes the total confinement or complete segregation of women.”[vi] Saudi Arabia is also “the only country of the Middle East to resist any concession to modernity…There, women suffer disabilities beyond those required by most interpretations of Islamic law…such as…being forbidden to drive anywhere in the Kingdom.”[vii] This indicates that the repression of women has been deliberately institutionalized in Saudi Arabia in a way unseen in other countries. 

The reason for this were several key events in the late 1970s that led to a radical shift towards the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic holy law.  In 1979, the Iranian revolution occurred and the shah was  replaced by a newly established Islamic government.[viii] This takeover strengthened the religious leadership in Saudi Arabia, demonstrating the political power it could yield. On November 20th of the same year, the Grand Mosque of Mecca was “seized by 500 armed men…whose goal was to overthrow the House of Saud for its perceived corruption and emulation of the West”.[ix]These two events terrified the ruling family, because since the conception of the country, the house of Saud has relied on the support of the religious establishment for its legitimacy.[x] This displays the tension that already existed between religious tradition and modernizing efforts by the ruling family. It was therefore important that the ruling family demonstrate their commitment to the Islamic tradition, lest it upset more radical groups so much that they would attempt to destabilize the regime again. The legitimacy of the ruling family depended heavily on its ability to act as “protector of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina,”[xi] and without this role, the ruling family had nothing to claim as reason for its power. In order to maintain their security and shore up their legitimacy, the ruling family reacted to the destabilizing events of 1979 by granting more institutional strength to the religious establishment.  

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