Earlier this month, Saudi women attended football matches at three major football stadiums for the first time, overcoming an infamous symbol of gender segregation in one of the Islamic world’s most deeply conservative nations.
While the attendees savored the moment, debate raged over the significance of the change. Both supporters and skeptics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms are wondering: will the presence of women in stadiums prove merely symbolic, or a sign of deeper change to come? How far does the young royal’s commitment to social reform go?
The event was indeed about more than ‘the beautiful game’. The decision, announced a few months ago, puts to rest one of many battles that will determine the shape of Saudi society in the coming decades. Many argue the impetus for this social milestone is economic, with faltering oil wealth pushing the monarchy to reduce restrictions on women to secure its own future. But Saudi female liberation cannot be written off as simple PR. A small but tireless circle of activists have made personal sacrifices for years to lay the groundwork for these changes. The trailblazing bin Salman should solicit their help when, not if, he goes further.
Vision 2030’s Gender Dilemma
The crown prince’s blueprint for the future of Saudi Arabia is called Vision 2030. His ultimate goal is to place Saudi at “the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse and the hub connecting three continents.” It’s a bold rethink for a country whose economy is overwhelmingly reliant on oil, but requires breaking down deep-rooted Wahhabi social norms in one of the world’s most conservative societies.
The role of women will be key to determining whether this strategy thrives or flounders. The past Saudi approach to female empowerment was tantamount to economic self-harm. Saudi women can’t even open or maintain their own bank accounts, and the country is ranked at 141 out of 144 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index. Female participation in the workforce is just 28% of the rate for men. In the private sector, Saudi women make 56% less than male counterparts.
In fairness, this is a regional problem. “Democratic” Tunisia ranks 126th on the Gender Gap index, while supposedly progressive Turkey and Jordan find themselves in the 130s. All the same, a post-oil Saudi economy and society will need to draw on all its human capital. As Bernard Haykel of Princeton put it, “the Saudis finally understand that the economy will not diversify or reform without bringing women into the workforce.”
Saudi women already have the tools to close those gaps. They are well-educated and ready to add their skills to the economy once the barriers in their way are removed. Bin Salman has already slated one of those obstacles, the longstanding ban on women driving, for abolition.
The economics of undoing the driving ban are straightforward. The move will enable women to get to work while saving money they have had to spend on chauffeurs. A 2017 labor survey showed around 1.3 million of those chauffeurs were foreign workers, a surefire recipe for funneling money out of Saudi Arabia via remittances. Some believe as much as $4 billion exits the kingdom annually instead of being spent in Saudi and supporting the service industry.
No surprise that the end of the ban is expected to produce a considerable uptick in consumer demand and spending. Employers who hire women will no longer need to factor the cost of a driver into salaries or locate workplaces in expensive city centers. All in all, bringing female participation in the labor force to GCC average levels could add up to $90 billion to the Saudi economy by 2030.
These two moves have already secured considerable dividends for Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The foreign investors the Kingdom wants to attract are also watching developments carefully to see how quickly Saudi can change Western perceptions of oppressive conservatism and gender discrimination. Elevating the status of women is indispensable to that task.
Bin Salman and the government will no doubt be watching the reaction from the global business community intently. Several Vision 2030 initiatives have already generated excitement in Europe, Asia, and North America, even as gender issues lurk under the surface. The expected public offering (IPO) of Saudi Aramco has provoked fierce competition between financial capitals, with New York and London fighting to host it. Theresa May made repeat visits to Riyadh to lobby on London’s behalf and emphasize the role women can play in society.
The more the status of women improves, the more success Vision 2030 will have in engaging counterparts overseas. Beyond Theresa May, the crown prince has found other willing partners like France’s Emmanuel Macron, who visited him in November and who will receive him in Paris in the next few weeks. French companies like EDF have already been bidding for stakes in major Saudi infrastructure projects. Macron, ever the advocate for French business, will almost certainly borrow from May’s playbook in trying to leverage his relationship with Saudi leadership into greater business opportunities.
For all of these headline changes to stick, however, bin Salman should reach out to the activists who plugged away for many years to end of the driving ban and keep narrowing the gap between Riyadh and the West. There is room for plenty of other campaigns to follow the lead of Women2Drive, and many more obstacles to overcome before Saudi Arabia can truly claim to draw on the talents of its entire population.
The bold modernizers at the top of the political pyramid should empower the women at the grassroots to go after other enduring institutions of inequality. Only then can bin Salman’s vision truly take root.
Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles
It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.
Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.
Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.
The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.
Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.
Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.
In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.
The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.
It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.
Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.
Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.
By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.
The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.
Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.
It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.
Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.
‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement
Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.
In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.
In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.
“Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.
Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.
Appealing to both
Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.
They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.
Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.
Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.
In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.
Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.
Improved relationships ‘key’
Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.
Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.
The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.
We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief
Triumph for multilateralism
“The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.
However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.
“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said. “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”.
In Iran’s best interest
Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.
He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.
“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.
Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS
The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.
While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states.
Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan.
“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.
The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people.
“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”
Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.
Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev.
During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.
The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit.
There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Source: Tehran Times
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