Contemporary Saudi Arabia is confronted with socio-economic and political clashes that exclude women from public life.

In 2008, heated debates over this situation within Saudi society, the rest of the Muslim world and even in major Western countries interested in Saudi society, leave the impression that conditions are dire or that changes are near-impossible.

On the contrary, their segregated status notwithstanding, many Saudi women have achieved remarkable success.

Much of these gains were due to the work of a remarkable woman, Queen Ìffat Al Thunayan (1916-2000), who, along with her husband King Faisal Bin Àbdul Àziz (1906-1975), established the foundations that permitted undeniable advances.

Her critical advisory role to a prescient ruler added significant value even though few, if ever, learnt of the major contributions the late queen made.

Prince Faisal first met his future spouse in 1932, after she arrived in the kingdom on a pilgrimage with her paternal aunt, Jawharan Bint Abdullah Al Thunayan. Though Ìffat — sometimes spelled Effat — was apparently destined to marry the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Àbdul Àziz, Faisal fancied her and sealed the betrothal.

It was truly love at first sight, especially since Ìffat spoke little or no Arabic and Faisal did not know Turkish. Remarkably, Ìffat and Faisal taught each other their respective native tongues and four of their children learned Turkish at home.

Though she eventually became fluent in Arabic, Ìffat retained traces of a Turkish accent, which further distinguished her in the cosmopolitan Hijaz.

This linguistic particularity was valuable as she imparted her interest in other cultures not only to her children but, over the years, to many Saudis as well.

The couple had nine children and, according to those who knew Ìffat, she was extremely well organised.

She sewed, with her mother's assistance, the curtains of their new home in Makkah and insisted on family lunches or dinners, depending on time and place.

Her table was a unique platform for discussions on myriad subjects as she encouraged family members to share insights and offer intelligent commentary.

Those who knew her affirmed that she loved to listen and speak. Above all, she was an avid reader.

During her life, especially after she became queen, Ìffat played a leading role in Saudi female society, attended state functions, including graduations, and received female state guests.

She also travelled extensively, although on a private basis.

To say that Queen Ìffat shared everything with her husband would be an understatement even if she fully appreciated the parameters of the society she moved into.

Her doors were open to everyone, as she tried to keep abreast of developments and assist her husband by acting as a well-attuned source of information within the Hijaz and, later, in the Najd.

Faisal valued what his wife heard from visitors, not only because he relied on her for rare insights that helped formulate appropriate state policies but also because he intuitively trusted her judgment.

Consequently, and perhaps like most wives, her influence on Faisal was mutual and all-inclusive, and she often spoke her mind. In turn, her husband respected her and sought her advice because she shared with him her ambitions and ideas.

It may, therefore, be correct to conclude that they complemented each other, which was exceptional in Saudi Arabia at the time, and which distinguished Ìffat from many of her contemporaries.

Even in a patriarchal society such as Saudi Arabia, the queen played a key role in shaping the ruler's visions for excellence.

Faisal considered education to be the founding investment of each effort made by every Saudi to build a working society.

Towards that end, and given the dearth of qualified citizens to assume nation-building burdens, Riyadh devoted significant resources to primary and secondary schools. Available statistics from the period are dizzying and literally went from zero to 316 primary and secondary schools by 1952, for a total of 39,920 pupils.

In 1973, the number of schools stood at 6,595 for 707,318 enrollees, which was astounding.

Naturally, these dramatic increases required faculty, whose numbers went from 1,605 in 1952 to 15,232 in 1973. Most of them came from Egypt or Jordan.

Faisal made sure that education was free and gradually made it compulsory for boys after religious figures were persuaded of its added value.

Few have realised the efforts that went into these accomplishments or the depth of discussions required to enhance education's parameters.

In 1943, Prince Faisal and Princess Ìffat inaugurated the Ta'if Model School for Boys and Girls, where their own children, children of other members of the Al Sa'ud family and those who consented to attend, enrolled.

It was a boarding school and most of the staff, at the beginning, were from Egypt. Female nurses — mostly Egyptians and Yemenis (although there was one Saudi too) — attended to the youngest students and slept in residence to look after them.

The girls' section was reserved for students from the Al Saud family, including the couple's daughters.

In 1954, Princess Ìffat inaugurated the Dar Al Hanan, or House of Affection, in Jeddah, where her youngest daughters were schooled.

The name of the school, the inspiration for which came from the Quran, had only 15 youngsters in the first year.

Ìffat further established the first girls' college in Riyadh, the Quliyyat Al Banat, or the Girls' College, and, as part of her popular efforts, started the Nahdah Al Sa'udiyyah, a Saudi progressive association that provided illiterate Riyadh women free classes in hygiene and childcare, foreign languages, typing and other useful subjects.

In 1999, Queen Ìffat inaugurated a college that bears her name — next to the Dar Al Hanan — where students could major in any of nine subjects, including business administration, psychology, architecture and engineering.

First for women

With English as its medium of instruction and a curriculum designed around the American liberal arts model, the college added majors in electrical and computer engineering, which were the first such courses offered to women in Saudi Arabia.

These initiatives illustrated that no field would be beyond the reach of women if the will to excel was there.

One of Queen Ìffat's daughters, Princess Lulwah Bint Al Faisal, reflected on the many challenges her mother faced and her incredible abilities to overcome them, acknowledging in a 2007 interview to Saudi Aramco World that she prevailed largely because “she had to deal with things that were completely foreign to her''.

Ìffat's youngest daughter, Princess Hayfah Bint Al Faisal, described her mother in more personal terms: “Everybody called her beautiful but I think her inner beauty came out more than her outer beauty.

She was a dark blonde, with very bright, honey-coloured eyes. She had great character and was very strong. She had to be strong to live the life she lived.

She was just a giant of a woman, really. She was also wise, beyond anything you can think of. You had to run to keep up with her.

She had so much energy. When she was going somewhere, she went somewhere. And when she was doing something, she did it.''

As only close family members can know, Ìffat left her mark on her daughters in many ways, including a vitality that was certainly not popular in the kingdom at the time.

“She used to laugh uproariously,'' Princess Lulwah recalled, asserting that her mother “was vivacious and alive, vibrant and quick in her laughter.

When she laughed, she laughed from the heart. If she got angry, she really got angry and showed it, and then it was over.

You knew you could not go beyond a certain point. One look was enough.''

Going beyond her own family's conditions, Ìffat was interested in building an educated class in Saudi Arabia and worked tirelessly to promote women in all fields.

Indeed, and somewhat at a distance from politics, she concentrated on education, health services and philanthropy as fields where the employment of women could be promoted and encouraged.

She quickly appreciated that those were the areas where the need was greatest.

Together, Ìffat and Faisal understood the value of education as a way out of an ossified system.

And Ìffat set out to promote her ideas by encouraging her own sons and daughters to excel and further change ingrained Saudi mentalities.


Ìffat was a very determined Saudi woman who was admired for her leadership as an early advocate of education for women and young girls.

For the Ìffat College Dean Hayfah Jamal Al Layl, the (then) princess “was focused''. Speaking with reporter Kay Hardy Campbell, Dr Al Layl underscored that the late queen “used to come and attend school ceremonies.

She was always humble and always came to talk to the students. She would pat them on the shoulder if they did well, and if not, she encouraged them to do better.''

Ìffat encouraged education for girls in one of the most conservative societies in the Muslim world and, towards that end, devised the establishment of specialised schools.

Although more conservative Saudis frowned on the idea of sending their daughters for such instruction, it took Queen Ìffat and King Faisal a good deal of effort to gently persuade the people.

They submitted their own family as a worthy model for others to emulate.

Whenever they faced resistance, Faisal would ask whether there was anything in the Quran that prohibited women's education, and declared: “We have no cause for argument, God enjoins learning on every Muslim man and woman.''

Over time, the archetype presented by Ìffat and Faisal found a steady audience among all Saudis.

For Princess Lulwah Bint Al Faisal, the late Queen's motto would probably be the same today as it was during her lifetime: “Educate yourself. Be good mothers. Bring up perfect Saudis. Build your country.''

In her own particular way, Ìffat Al Thunayan has left her mark on contemporary Saudi history by espousing ideas that were larger than her capabilities.

She subjected her dreams to a will, which catapulted her own immediate family.

Through the paradigm, she propelled her nation to new heights.

It was the stuff of legends that catapulted her from the shores of the Bosphorus to the gentle coasts of the Red Sea.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Boulder, Colorado:
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.

This article is the fifth in a series, which will appear on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.