The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s recent municipal elections is not usually a story most international observers would spend an awful lot of time on. But the election of 19 women from some 2,100 candidates has focused attention for the first time on the role of women in a country which has over the years received much criticism for its perceived imbalance of gender.
While fewer than one percent of the successful candidates were female, make no mistake, this is a big moment for Saudi. Thirty women already sit in Saudi Arabia’s 150-member parliament, known as the Shura Council, but they are appointed directly by the king. So the election of women by the public is a welcome step which in the eyes of many commentators – indeed many Saudis – is long overdue.
There is much more to be done, the next most likely step being the normalisation of driving for men and women. But as with all things in the kingdom, change happens slowly and at its own pace.
Managing the pace of reform, which speeded up markedly under King Abdullah and seems to have maintained its rate under King Salman, is one of the most difficult jobs for a Saudi king to manage.
People commenting on Saudi Arabia often forget how big the country is, how varied is the history of its constituent regions, and how diverse are the many citizens who comprise it. The kingdom is a plethora of different communities, ethnicities and value structures all fused in one large, family-run social experiment.
When it comes to reform, the kingdom’s rulers need to balance a varying mixture of push and pull factors. Some constituents seek to push social reforms on apace, while others chafe at the notion and, indeed, even vehemently oppose it. And unlike the popular perception, not all of those opponents to reform are men.
Beginning in the 1960s and largely driven by the need for technical expertise as the country sought to maximise its oil revenues, many thousands of Saudis – almost all male – were sent abroad to study, particularly to the United States and Britain.
In Saudi, societal change is driven not only from the top down, but by a large sector of the population whose technocratic experience and financial clout gives them power …
Naturally, many of them absorbed some of the ways of life of their host country during their formative period of young adulthood, and infused some of these values into their life back home. The result was the formation of a cosmopolitan, well-educated business class of Saudis whose views often contradicted the more conservative status quo in the country that existed at the time, and which began a gentle push for economic and social reform.
In many ways this is different from the other Gulf states which largely lack a middle class. In Saudi, societal change is driven not only from the top down, but by a large sector of the population whose technocratic experience and financial clout gives them power in a system that is still outwardly an absolute monarchy.
Contrast this with more conservative areas of the country such as al-Qassim and parts of Hail province, which are also seeing the growth of a technocratic class but are still largely places where the religious police are more often seen as defenders of culture and morality than they are some sort of clerical despotism.
Traditional values and hierarchies are still highly respected and expected to be honoured, including by the royals. When placing these very different constituencies side by side you begin to see how difficult the conundrum is. The gaps in aspiration and social values between Saudi citizens are far wider than the vast majority of states existing in the world today.
So reform in Saudi is a constant work in progress, a product of negotiation, compromise and attempts to keep multiple sectors of the population happy all at the same time. Despite a noted absence of polling data, Saudis by and large trust their rulers to do the right thing, and look for stability and consistency from the ruling house.
Large leaps in policy-making and violent upheavals in the social order are simply not the Saudi way, and at a moment of deep regional unrest after the removal of several regional strongmen, these desires have only been enforced.
It is important to note that each step women take that increases their visibility in public life, or sports, or culture, represents another cultural norm being reset. Young Saudis, who make up the vast majority of the kingdom’s population, will grow up in a country in which women being involved in sport, the workplace, and in writing legislation will be seen as the norm.
From this there is no going back, and for a country that has tried to maintain its traditions as the world around it has changed dramatically, this is a big step into the unknown that makes conservatives nervous.
Tide of change
But conservatives cannot hold back the tide of change for ever. Indeed, it is often socioeconomic pressures that come with modernising the Saudi economy that are forcing the king’s hand.
To compete with the world, Saudi needs its entire native workforce to chip in. To build a modern economy without 50 percent of the population, many of whom score far higher than their male counterparts in school and university exams, simply makes no sense.
Alongside this comes the added conundrum of getting women to and from work. Saudis are not Qataris, and plenty of husbands simply cannot afford to pay for a driver for their wife to get to and from work every day, which means negotiating an extra hour or two in Riyadh’s infamous traffic jams. Sooner or later those taboos will also be broken.
Change is happening, and not because of the pressure of Amnesty International or the European Union. It is from the everyday pressures within Saudi society itself. Saudis are plugged into the world. One need only see the penchant for young Saudis to be constantly messaging across their three telephones on different social outlets to know that they are engaging with the outside in ways their grandparents, and even their parents, never did.
Reform might seem desperately overdue, but it is speeding up as the country changes demographically and young people require society to be managed in a different way. The push and pull factors are still there, and make no mistake about it, Saudi still has a long road ahead. But it will ultimately be for the Saudis to decide what that reform looks like, and how it comes about.
Michael Stephens is a research fellow for Middle East studies and head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.