How Genuine are Reforms Targeting Women in Saudi Arabia? A Comparison between Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Reforms targeting women in Saudi Arabia have generated mixed reactions. Some expressed optimism with reforms introduced thus far in comparison to the slow pace experienced over the past years which was meant to accommodate the conservative faction of society. The “shock therapy” technique followed by the new leadership emphasizes the importance of introducing reforms with full force regardless of the backlash this might create.

Others have expressed lack of enthusiasm, arguing that the reforms are superficial and cosmetic. They call for total abolishing of the guardianship system because it imposes restrictions on women’s movement, discriminate against them and does not give them their full rights as Saudi citizens. The demands for abolishing the guardianship system can be heard daily on social media. In an unprecedented move earlier this week, two female members of the Shura Council presented a recommendation to limit the male guardianship system.

However, there are those who question the genuineness of reforms targeting women, especially that they coincided with the government’s plan to modernize the country as part of Saudi Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia’s alley and close friend in the region, the United Arab Emirates, has been compared to the recent modernization efforts since the UAE created its national identity based on modernity and women’s empowerment.

Traditional, Modern and National Identity 

Hissa Al Dhaheri’s analysis of “Women and Nation Building: The Case of the United Arab Emirates” can give some insight into the similarities and differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding women’s empowerment and national identity. Al Dhaheri argues that, “Because the status of women represents how ‘modern’ a nation is, then the role of women is an important marker for a country and its progress.” (287) As a result, women have been portrayed as “traditional and authentic” yet “modern” as part of the country’s construction of its national identity that seems women as “both representative of change and carriers of tradition.” (288)

A Saudi initiative launched in February 2018 to highlight achievements by Saudi women (@SheSaudiArabia) represents some striking resemblance with the depiction of UAE women as both traditional and modern. In the coming video, an unveiled woman is seen talking about her achievements. She says “I’m traditional, I’m modern, I’m a career woman and I’m a mother.” The woman is seen, then, taking off a wig to show her actual veil which is meant to demonstrate the negative attitudes towards successful veiled women and the refusal to acknowledge their achievements. In any case, one wonders if being “modern” yet “traditional” will be of importance in the new Saudi Arabia that has formed its identity in the past around being religious and conservative. 

The Case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE

In the UAE, women’s empowerment was one of the “tools” that was used to construct the national identity. As the country required vast numbers of expatriate workers to develop its infrastructure, the creation of a national identity was vital to “define themselves against the ‘others.'” (275) Indigenous Emiratis needed the “authentic” dimension to set them apart from foreigners, whereas the “modern” dimension of the national identity was meant “to send a message that the UAE is a stable state in the middle of a politically volatile region.” (276)

Saudi Arabia did not have an overwhelming number of foreign workers, however, it did construct its national identity based on the challenges experienced in the country and the region. Religion has always been important, and even more so after the siege of Mecca in 1979. In the late 1990s, nationalism was introduced as a subject to be taught in school for boys and not for girls. For two years, there were no textbook for the subject as teachers were responsible for teaching the subject the way they saw suitable.

In the UAE, women constituted an important paradigm in national identity formation. Emirati women, “create and carry the culture with their bodies, appearance and performativity.” (289) In Saudi Arabia, the sahwa era limited the participation of women in different sectors in the country. When the decision to allow women to work in shops was announced in 2012, many conservatives fought aggressively against it.

Emirati women have been given high posts in different sectors across the country. In 2007, nine women wore sworn in as members of the UAE Federal National Council. In 2008, “Kholoud Ahmed Juwan Al Dhahiri was appointed as the first woman judge in the country” (286). In 2016, Ohood bint Khalfan Roumi was named as the Minister of Happiness, a position that was created that year. Shamma Al-Mazrui was appointed Youth Minister, making her the world’s youngest minister at the age of 22.

Minister of Happniess Ohood bint Khalfan Roumi (Reem Mohammed via The National)

The Challenges of Reforms in Saudi Arabia 

In the past few months, Saudi women were allowed to enter football stadiums, drive their own cars and to apply for jobs in airports and land border-crossings.  Women can also serve as soldiers in the country’s internal security forces. Reema bint Bandar is the first woman to head the Saudi Sports Federation and Tamadur Al Ramah is the first to be appointed as Deputy Labour Minister.

Women in the UAE have been integrated into the workforce and have occupied high positions in government and in various sectors across the country.  On the hand, women in Saudi Arabia had limited job prospects for decades. Now, the government is trying to infiltrate women into a dominantly male-only job environment. Saudi women on social media create an added dimension to the debate as they constantly voice their concerns regarding the male guardianship system as it stands in their way of employment. Modernization efforts and reforms targeting women are constantly challenged by the restrictiveness of this system.

Now, more and more Saudis are distancing themselves from the sahwa religious identity of the past. Instead of portraying themselves as conservative and religious, Saudis are increasingly aware of their “Saudi” identity. This trend is mostly relevant among the youth and those who do not consider themselves as conservative. On the other hand, conservative Saudis use the religious national identity of the past to further reject reforms targeting women. To them, what constitutes a true Saudi woman is being religious and conservative. Will Saudi Arabia try to create a new national identity that accepts and allow more integration of women in society as the UAE did? And how will they construct a new identity without deconstructing the old one?

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