By Luke Wakeling
Saudi Arabia is said to be progressing from its deeply, conservative roots into a more modernised state. Yet, despite successful reforms such as the lifting of the ban on female drivers, increasing the number of women in the workforce and allowing women to attend sports stadiums; the state is still failing women and is continuing to be accused of consistently abusing human rights. The 2030 vision of Saudi Arabia does little to address this.
The three main pillars of the Saudi 2030 vision promises to diversify its economy through global investment, to become a global centre of trade connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, and that the country will be the centre of the Islamic world.
Despite this promising program set to reform the country, the overarching problems of human rights and gender inequality still persist in Saudi Arabia, a prime example being the 15 women’s rights activists that were arrested in May for being critical of the government. These activists were strong supporters of women’s right to drive; a ban which was lifted in 2018.
Indeed, three British MPs have recently found that activists have been kept in conditions that meet the threshold for torture under both Sharia and International law. This includes sexual harassment, threats of rape, sleep deprivation, assault, threats to life and solitary confinement.
Another example of Saudi Arabia’s failure to progress is a lack of religious tolerance. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi Arabian woman, recently escaped from her family to fly to Canada after being granted asylum status. She says she fears for her life if she returned to her home country, as renouncing Islam is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Qunun’s comments expressed that she just “wanted to be free” as she “can’t study and work” in her own country. Other Saudi Arabian laws remain fundamentally patriarchal, for example, under the ‘male governance system’ a Saudi woman requires a male relative’s approval before applying for a passport, travelling, studying abroad and getting married.
Another issue that discredits the 2030 program is the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition air strike and bombing of Yemen has caused a war induced famine, where millions have died from malnutrition, disease and poor health. Two million children are severely malnourished and two-thirds of the population are food-insecure; it is, according to the UN, the worst ever man-made humanitarian disaster. Yet, for all the promise of economic reforms, Saudi Arabia are doing little about the catastrophe it helped cause.
It is true that Saudi Arabia has made some advances towards gender equality and economic diversity. However, this cannot distract the world from the atrocities that still persist in the totalitarian state. It can be argued that a lot more strides forward still need to be made before Saudi Arabia can be applauded for its social and democratic progress.