Despite Saudi women still being forbidden to drive and requiring permission from a male guardian before being legally allowed to travel, their rights actually advanced under King Abdullah — who died on Friday aged 90 — albeit at a painfully slow rate.
Abdullah’s tenure on the throne of the oil-rich kingdom saw restrictions on women entering both education and the workforce eased — a change that encouraged thousands of Saudi women into the professional world. Such was the impact that Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, described the late ruler as a “strong advocate for women.”
Others were less enthusiastic in their praise, noting that women are still regarded as second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia; are required to cover themselves in public; and have no legal recourse in the event of suffering spousal abuse; among other discriminatory measures against women. Indeed the World Economic Forum places Saudi Arabia a lowly 130 out of 142 countries in its annual gender gap index.
But in the workplace, at least, progress was made. Under Abdullah, women were granted the right to enter professions in Saudi Arabia that had been traditionally reserved for men, according to a report by the Al-Sayedah Khadijah Bint Khuwailid Business Women Center. The center — an example of Abdullah’s push to improve gender representation in the workforce and political arena — was established at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce to “lobby for the removal of obstacles for women.”
“In a very discreet way, he was a strong advocate of women,” Lagarde noted. “It was very gradual, appropriately so probably for the country.”
Reforms under the so-called “reformist King” happened slowly — too slowly for many, given the extent of restrictive rules that were still applied, and the lack of tolerance for dissent — but education was another field in which Abdullah used his powers to implement measurable change, experts say.
More than 200,000 students took part in the King Abdullah Scholarship program, which awarded grants to both men and women, allowing them to study abroad. Dar El Hekma College, an all-female university set up in Jeddah in 1999 — while King Abdullah was serving as de facto leader after his brother’s stroke — launched courses in international relations and law, fields that had not been traditionally open to women.
Ibrahim Warde, an adjunct professor at Tufts University who taught at the Dar El Hekma in May, said the King’s educational initiatives were facilitated by the political space created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, which put pressure on the kingdom to confront extremist ideas. “There was a sense that reform is necessary,” he said.
The impulse for reform, however, required a careful balancing against the need to appease the conservative clergy whose support is a key source of domestic legitimacy for the Saudi monarchy — dating back centuries to a pact between Ibn Saud, founder of today’s ruling family, and conservative Muslim scholar Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab, father of the Wahabist tradition in Islam. Religious conservatives staged protests at the palace when they deemed reforms had gone too far.
“It’s clear that the king had ambitious goals but that he seemed to be very conscious of the weight of tradition,” Warde said. “There was the sense that by going too fast you may antagonize the more traditional part of Saudi society.”
Moves to legalize women’s right to drive, for example, have repeatedly been blocked by this hardline faction. Other measures, such as the appointment of the first female minister, Norah Al Faiz; the implementation of the first legislation criminalizing domestic violence; and the promise that women would be allowed to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections; were approved by the Shura Council. That’s an advisory body to the King and includes 30 women — up from just less than 10 in 2011 — who sit in seats segregated from the male members.
Despite the advances he orchestrated on women’s rights, said Adam Coogle, Middle East analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW), the former monarch’s legacy was ultimately tarnished by his hardline stance against dissent by Saudi bloggers and activists who demanded constitutional reforms.
Emboldened by the Arab Spring, reformists took to social media to seek political change.
In response, Saudi officials in 2014 issued an “anti-terror” law that criminalized criticism of the government, and expanded the interior minister’s power to suppress opposition without judicial oversight.
Some of the high-profile prosecutions that followed brought the kingdom into a critical international spotlight. Prominent human rights lawyer and activist Waleed abu al-Khair was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison on counts that included “insulting the judiciary,” and “distorting the Kingdom’s reputation,” according to HRW. Meanwhile blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in twenty weekly tranches of 50 strokes.
“In women’s rights the king gets a lot of credit for the reforms,” Coogle said. “But his legacy is ultimately diminished by the crackdown on freedom of expression.”