Saudi Arabia is often in the spotlight, but sadly much of it for wrong reasons. From the anvil of guilt over the 9/11 bombings to the tragic execution of a Saudi journalist, the western media does not spare a chance to direct its vitriol at a country that is literally trying to catch up with the rest of the world.
There is no question that there is much to achieve. But for a country that had spent the last three decades or so of its young existence hostage to the social and cultural restrictions imposed on its people by the feared Commission for the Propagation of Good and the Prevention of Evil, a committee that extended its power over almost every aspect of the daily living of Saudis, including what to wear and who to greet, what to celebrate and what to avoid, life for many Saudis was a very colourless existence.
Along with the religious police, most features of Saudi society were governed by strict and extreme views of the powerful clerics who issued ruling edicts on just about everything we did, including how we crossed our legs during prayers.
A law into themselves
The generation of baby boomers and Generation X felt it the most as the powers of the feared religious police increased and in many aspects, they became a law into themselves. They suffered in silence as protesting was considered going against religion. People ran the risk of being branded heretics if they disavowed some of the blatantly extreme and distorted interpretations of the faith.
But suddenly all that changed when King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and his son Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, or MBS as he is commonly referred to, came to rule the country.
Overnight, changes began happening. Changes sometimes so quick they literally had the residents of this country gasping for breath in amazement of how quickly decades old and deeply entrenched barriers began to fall and without a whimper. Progress was in the air with no holds barred.
With so many changes and so soon, there remain a few areas where women would like to see further progress. One of them would be the appointment of women to ministerial positions in the Saudi cabinet.
This brings me to a discussion last week on such progress in which my niece Dania was discussing the effect of the changes on the lot of women. Now Dania has the distinction of being among a handful of individuals of women — who during a basketball game — scored all the points for her team in a winning effort. That being said, Dania was musing over the aspect of the changes that affected the professional facet of Saudi women with the changes over recent times.
The government realised very quickly the immense resources sitting untapped at home of unemployed Saudi women who could contribute immensely to the economy and set about the target of accelerating female employment from 13 per cent back in 2014 to 30 per cent by 2030. To do that, the government introduced swift laws to encourage women to join the workforce.
Perhaps the most significant one was the anti-harassment laws — a very important factor that allowed the empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia since 2018. This allowed women to be comfortable in the workplace, on the streets driving and travelling for business. It also let hesitant fathers, husbands and brothers who previously were firmly against their women seeking work outside, relax their shackles in view of the secure environments the government had promised.
Support for working mums
The Saudi Ministry of Labour also addressed the issue of working mothers with small children by subsidising day care centres to support them. There is also a government programme to assist women in getting to and from work through a transportation subsidy for those who qualify.
The government has established an equal pay policy with no distinction between the sexes. It has also asked private companies to follow suit in ensuring that men and women were paid the same for the same kind of work.
With so many changes and so soon, there remain a few areas where women would like to see further progress. One of them would be the appointment of women to ministerial positions in the Saudi cabinet. Another would be to raise the ratio of women in the Saudi Shura Council to 30 per cent to reflect the targets for employment set in Vision 2030.
Saudis, who are witnessing positive changes taking place every day in so many areas of their lives, are confident that the government is on the right track and more progress is in the offing.
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena