Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Caroline Nokes MP


The background for this paper is based upon discussions and meetings with representatives of the Saudi administration during a Parliamentary delegation in December 2011, and independent research as a result of that trip.


This submission is narrow in its focus, and comments primarily on two issues—the participation of women in municipal life, and the general status of women in Saudi Society, their liberties, and assumptions made about women in Saudi by both the west, and Saudi men.

Women in Saudi Society—Recent Developments

Whilst visiting Saudi, I was informed by representatives of administration, the 2011 reforms on women’s rights, introduced by the King, were progressive and at a pace which was quicker than the general attitudinal change of wider Saudi society. In other words, the King was instigating reforms which were not always supported by his subjects (both male and female) who were more conservative than him in this respect. If this claim is verifiable and true, this should be acknowledged by those who criticise the pace of reform in Saudi, and give hope for the future.

To the western mind, not based in the religious or cultural legacy of nomadic lifestyles and Wahabi Islam, the way women in Saudi are segregated, and subject even in adulthood to the will of a male Guardian, can be shocking and disconcerting.

The general assumption of Saudi, informed by media reports and which my own experience verifies, is Saudi society—male and female, generally speaking does not share the view that women have, or indeed should have, inherent equality in terms of status to men.

Accurate or not, this assumption is deeply rooted, and at odds to western attitudes, which since the enlightenment, and particularly in the years following the Great War, have changed to reflect the roles women now fill in Western society. This increase in the ability of women to self-determine is particularly quantifiable in terms of their economic activity, which is now one of a number of cultural expectations western women have of themselves.

An on-going lack of equality in Saudi society is therefore seen in both legal and cultural restrictions, much of which is grounded in Sharia, the basis of the Saudi legal system. This form of Islamic jurisprudence teaches the primary role of women is to be a mother and homemaker, and whilst this approach may be argued by some, even in the west, to have far reaching societal benefits, it cannot be a lifestyle imposed upon women, but must be a lifestyle actively chosen by women themselves.

Whilst the historic assumptions over the division of labour, steeped in nomadic history and Islamic jurisprudence, is historically and culturally explicable, it is hard to justify to a modern western audience, given the west’s cultural acceptance that women have no formal role defined by law or culture, but merely roles which they choose for themselves.

Therefore, equality of employment, economic participation, property rights, self-determination, and exercise of choice over dress are expectations which women in Saudi are increasingly claimed to have, yet denied at this time.

The impression, with some good reason, is that in Saudi, the woman is still very much the ‘property’ of a man, lacking in self determination, freedom of will and even the right to dress in public as she would choose. This it seems to me is the issue most in need of resolving, the woman’s inherent right to be her own person, and not the de-facto or even de-jure property of another.

Contrasting western expectation across a number of indicators, one must conclude that whether by the choice of the women of Saudi, or by legal imposition, or by imposed cultural standards of behaviour, Saudi women enjoy significantly fewer freedoms than women in western societies.

However, there are claims this is changing. For example, taking two anecdotal observations, it was interesting to hear the claim that 70% of saving deposits in Saudi banks were owned by women. However, using this as an indicator of the improving status of women in Saudi has to be balanced by the reality of the power of the Guardian has over a woman, and that having legal title to such deposits might not equate to the liberty to dispose of them as the woman sees fit.

In terms of employment and careers, it was interesting to meet with female law students from Jedda University, who were very optimistic about their future career prospects, and gave no impression that their studies were anything other than a root to future employment. However one could again question how free these students would be to do so should they not gain the consent of their male Guardian, and one could ask what ability a woman might have to pursue a career without the acquiescence of the male Guardian.

Municipal Elections

The Shura Council is wholly appointed by the King, and for all its supposed democratic deficiencies, can be said to offer advice which is valued in the same way our own House of Lords is able to offer insights which are free from the pressures of needing to appeal to an electorate. Furthermore, the Shura Council also benefits from being non-party political. I have no doubt the Shura council is a valuable body or wisdom, and a genuine source of advice to the King. The west should be more measured in its criticism of its limited powers, and more mindful of its considerable influence.

However, at a municipal level, democracy is being practised in a manner which we in the west would recognise. Elections are free, although turnout is extremely low.

Whilst the turnout is disappointing, it should not of itself undermine its significance. Democracy in Saudi needs to be given time to become established, and for its appeal and value to grow to both candidates and the electorate.

Democracy in Saudi has to be seen in its wider cultural context. Saudi society is steeped in the cultural norms of a nomadic people, tribal in its organisation and practices, with strong monarchical and patriarchal influences. Therefore it would be naive of critics to assume this deeply held cultural mindset, which has been reinforced by Sharia law, can be overturned and western style democracy instigated speedily. Indeed, to seek to do so radically risks undermining the goal of a functioning democratic Saudi society, as it might create further hostility to progress and change by militating and radicalising conservative sections of society.

However, there are lessons which we may offer to those seeking to build an effective municipal democracy. Chief among them are enabling candidates, but especially women, to communicate, campaign and canvass.

Whilst In Saudi, I repeatedly asked what help and encouragement Saudi women thinking of standing for election receive, to which the answer was they had the right to do so. Clearly, there is a role for the international community, in which the United Kingdom could play a significant role, in mentoring potential candidates as well as the institutions they seek election to. Whilst the right for women to stand is welcome, they also need to be practically enabled to do so. In a society where women lack many of the basic liberties which women politicians in the west enjoy, a right which is almost impossible to exercise is merely tokenism.

19 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013