Summary: Saudi Arabia has worked hard to sell an image to the West that it is supportive of women’s rights but the detention, torture and trial of activists and efforts to manipulate UN Women tell another story.
For many decades nations have aimed to project an image of being advanced in women’s rights and gender equality, or at least to be making efforts in this direction. This “pro-women” discourse has laid the basis for the modern phenomenon of “women’s rights washing” and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Arab and Muslim world where women’s rights according to Palestinian-American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod are caught between “military interventionism and transnational feminism, progressive foundations and right-wing think-tanks, elite careers and welfare state governments, literary trade and marginal lives.”
Saudi Arabia began women’s rights washing in earnest after 9/11 as part of an attempt at a transformation of its international image and many new initiatives were launched including national dialogue sessions on the “rights and obligations of women” in 2004; trips by the Crown Prince and later King Abdullah with delegations of women; a woman appointed to the government as vice-minister for the education of women in 2009; 30 women appointed to the Shura council (an assembly with strictly advisory power selected by the King) in 2013; in 2015, women were allowed to vote and to run as candidates in municipal elections.
When King Salman acceded to the throne he relaxed rules around women further, guided by his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In June 2018 women began exercising their right to drive and in August 2019 the guardianship laws were loosened. Women’s rights continue to feature high on the regime’s agenda: at the G20 hosted by Saudi Arabia last month the women’s summit featured speakers from international organisations including the United Nations and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
For years this kind of pro-women communication strategy has worked relatively well for the regime. Western media, driven by liberal journalistic ideas about Arab women’s emancipation and Islamophobia has generally been happy to toe the line, embracing the semi-veiled mediatized “liberal” women the regime likes to put forward while ignoring critical voices as well as most middle or working class Saudi women and women living without Saudi nationality. These women continue to face both state and social repression in Saudi Arabia and invisibilization by foreign states and media.
This tranquil understanding between the regime and western media suffered a rude awakening in May, 2018 with the arrival of MbS’s arrest and torture campaign targeting women, starting with the detention of at least a dozen female activists, among them Loujain al-Hathloul. Abruptly the media discourse about women’s rights changed from being a safe area in which the regime could comfortably manage criticism and avoid talking about other human rights issues to a quagmire that seems to get worse each day. It is one which, like the campaign in Yemen or the feud against Qatar, MbS can never win. Women’s rights in Saudi today is an international PR catastrophe; but rather than listen to criticism and change course the crown prince’s response has been to continue the campaign of repression while doubling down on women’s rights washing.
In our posting of 14 October we observed how, when Arab regimes wish to influence the discourse in western countries they sometimes try to do so through powerful international organisations like the UN and this is particularly true in the area of women’s rights. In September 2018 UN Women announced that they would collaborate with Al Waleed Philanthropies, the philanthropic vehicle of Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, on a “groundbreaking global initiative to close gender data gaps”. The initiative, called “Making Every Woman and Girl Count”, aimed “to improve the production, accessibility and use of gender statistics” in countries around the world.
Prince Walid bin Talal’s own notorious personal reputation regarding women was apparently not a concern. He allegedly drugged and raped a woman on a yacht on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza on August 13 2008 according to court papers then fled the country to avoid taking a DNA test. In 2017 it was alleged he regularly used to beat his secret Kuwaiti wife and call her a prostitute.
According to emails leaked exclusively to Arab Digest however, Al Waleed Philanthropies’ real purpose in partnering with UN Women on “Making Every Woman and Girl Count” was to “improve Saudi Arabia’s positioning on global indexes” and a few weeks after it was signed UN Women were blindsided when the Saudis produced their own report introducing a completely new methodology for measuring women’s rights in the Kingdom which – if implemented by UN Women – would see the Kingdom shoot up the rankings to become one of the leading countries in the world for women’s rights. This ingenious attempt at sociological engineering hinged on an original bespoke methodology that lends weight to Saudi “experts” rather than use the more well-established data-collecting tools and statistical methodologies the UN normally uses.
The Saudi report explained why this was necessary:
“In most of these indices the low position that Saudi Arabia scores does not reflect the real Saudi status. There is sometimes data collection error, or unknown survey collection methods and in some cases the neighboring regions averaged score is used to fill in some of the Saudi missing data. Therefore, a local index measured by local experts from the region is highly needed. The data must be collected correctly and provided by authorized national consensus units based on true data that reflects the Saudi society.”
After submitting their report in February 2019 the Saudis informed UN Women they had two weeks to review it before they had to publish it with the UN Women logo attached. This ignited a row inside UN Women with some officials strongly rejecting the report as an outrageous attempt by the Saudis to have UN Women endorse a phoney gender survey and methodology that the Saudis would inevitably then use as propaganda.
In the end the report was never published by UN Women but the Saudis went ahead and published it themselves in November 2019 in a slightly edited version through King Saud University. In April 2019 Saudi media enthusiastically reported the results of the Saudi gender survey that UN Women had refused to put their logo on and the results were good:
“Using data collected from 15,000 households across the Kingdom, the study revealed major advances in women’s roles in health and education, but also that stronger measures were needed to improve participation in the economy and legislation.”
Asked by Arab Digest about Al Waleed Philanthropies’ financial involvement in the project or whether any money was subsequently handed back after UN Women refused to give the report their imprimatur as the Saudis demanded, UN Women had no comment. However, in a written reply to Arab Digest UN Women stated:
“Alwaleed (Philanthropies) supported ‘Women Count’, UN Women’s flagship programme to advance the production and use of gender data and statistics, particularly for the monitoring of the implementation of the 2030 agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Alwaleed Philanthropies also supported the advancement of gender data and statistics for monitoring the implementation of the SDGs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, by partnering with various bodies at national level, including the King Saud University, which was geared to better measure the participation of women in national development.
Our role was limited and consisted in providing technical advice and advance dialogue to ensure the methodologies used for data collection and analysis met internationally agreed statistical standards as per tools used to measure gender indicators of the 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals.
As per our usual practice, we followed due diligence practices prior to our collaboration with Alwaleed Philanthropies. The project in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ended at the conclusion of the technical advice in agreement with our partner in October 2019.”