President Obama's recent visit to Saudi Arabia has been accompanied by much speculation about the nature of relations with the United States. Much has changed in the US political landscape recently and even more has changed across the Arab world. Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that a regionally sensitive Saudi Arabia, surrounded by revolutionary change, and America, with its cautious foreign policy, would have different regional priorities.
However, the first glimmers of broader societal changes in Saudi Arabia have also begun to show, changes that may well bring it closer to the US and international community and have bigger potential ramifications for the country's future. Human rights have traditionally been a troubled issue in the Kingdom with frequent criticisms of the country's record on human rights, some quite recent. And although there are differences of opinion abroad on the country's human rights record from Muslims and non-Muslims countries alike, very few have able to constructively influence Saudi Arabia towards internationally accepted norms and ideals.
As the founder and chairman of an independent Middle East think tank, I have long tried to bridge the gap between Middle Eastern governments, their citizens, and international bodies. I have been fortunate enough to gauge the intentions of those in government with regards to their human rights obligations and can confidently say that this process is being taken more seriously the ever. The complexities of Saudi Arabian society and governance are often overlooked. Both require patience and nuance to navigate and influence. But it's important that we exercise that influence for the betterment of everyone.
One example of this is the acceptance by Saudi Arabia last month of the majority of human rights recommendations made through the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in Geneva. Gathered from a peer review from UN member states last October, the recommendations accepted Saudi Arabia accepted include commitments to continue codifying laws, prohibiting torture, and enabling NGOs to operate legally, "without harassment and undue government interference." In addition, all recommendations on fighting human trafficking, building human rights awareness, ending male guardianship, and protecting labour rights have been accepted. Taken at face value, this signals recognition by Saudi Arabia that it needs comprehensive human rights reform.
But there are significant omissions, rejections, and "maybes." Saudi Arabia pledges to "consider" ratifying international covenants on political and social rights (ICCPR and ICESCR) and outright rejects ratifying key covenants on labour (ILO 87 and 98), women (OP-CEDAW), and migrant worker rights (ICRMW). Also, some of the recommendations accepted were also accepted at a previous review in 2009, with little to show for it. And no mention at all of a woman's right to drive a car.
So why should we be cautiously optimistic? Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is a complex society undergoing major changes in terms of its culture and domestic politics in the midst of upheaval in the Middle East. Even five years ago, human rights played only a little, if any, role in public discussion or in considerations by the government. Despite this, there has been significant movement on a number of issues prompted not by UN reviews, but by a natural evolution within Saudi Arabia itself.
In the past year, agreements protecting migrant workers have been signed with the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia. These agreements address key concerns over worker pay, holidays, health insurance, possession of passports, and the right to change employers. Saudi Arabia ratified a covenant (ILO 138), which states a minimum working age of 15 (3 years higher than the US). Such agreements could form the basis of a comprehensive policy for all migrant workers.
For women, the kingdom enacted legislation in 2013 that criminalises domestic violence for the first time and allows women to study and practice law. Next year, women will be allowed to vote and stand for municipal elections, having already been included in Shura council, the country's highest consultative body. And the number of women working in the private sector has grown from 40,000 in 2009 to over 400,000 today, a tenfold increase. The increasing presence of women in society may help with the more difficult issues of ending male guardianship (already accepted in principle) and driving automobiles.
The willingness to continue down this path of reform, whether a result of international pressure or not, will depend on the ability of Saudi society and culture to cope with the changes already introduced. But because the changes made recently strengthen civil society, reinvigorate the private sector, and enhance women's educational and economic opportunities, the foundations have been laid for further advancement on more sensitive issues.
If we are serious about moving forward on human rights, we should recognise the progress made so far and constructively engage the Kingdom to encourage them to continue. As society there adapts and evolves towards international norms and continues its economic engagement with the West, we may see very soon that there is no turning back. It could be the dawn of real change in Saudi Arabia.
The desire for greater change in the Middle East has manifested itself in mass movements and collective action. But it has also manifested itself in civil war, strife and regional instability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a journey of gradual reform that is comparatively slow and deliberate but nonetheless headed in the right direction. It is a journey that can hopefully lead to more then merely superficial change and to significant improvements in the empowerment of women and other marginalised communities. This has the power to impact the future complexion of the country in a hugely positive way. It is something we should recognize and support, even if for now the decisive steps the Kingdom has taken and has committed to taking appear like baby steps to the West.