A clear objective

16 December 2005
To get a measure of how quickly Saudi society is changing these days, you only have to look at a newsstand. 'Couple harassed by religious police'; 'Domestic helper seeks runaway sponsor'; 'Imam varsity to get women's campus' - these are just a handful of headlines from a recent issue of the English-language daily Arab News.

Only a few years ago, these topics would have been considered off-limits. But the local press has been gradually probing the boundaries of late, encouraged by the reformist signals coming from the top. There is a growing sense of editorial licence, and articles on women's rights, religious extremism and the treatment of foreign workers have become the norm rather than the exception. Following the accession of King Abdullah in August, editors have declared open season on a number of previously taboo topics - particularly that of the status of women in Saudi society.

'The real watershed was the school fire,' says a European diplomat, referring to an incident in March 2002 when members of the muttawa (religious police) prevented schoolgirls fleeing a burning dormitory in Mecca, leading to the deaths of 15 girls. 'The media really started to find their voice. But the debate that followed could not have happened without the direct sanction of the government, and in many ways [King] Abdullah has been more progressive than much of the rest of Saudi society.' Local journalists say that these days many of their biggest battles tend to be fought with their own internal censors rather than the Saudi authorities.

This growing freedom of expression also reflects tangible developments on the ground. The country's first nationwide elections were carried out earlier this year, at the municipal council level, in what may turn out to be a trial run for elections to the Majlis al-Shoura (consultative council). And while universal suffrage is still a distant prospect, women's rights are quietly being rolled out in the public arena. Saudi women are now entitled to personal identification cards, which in theory enables them to drive and move about town without a chaperone - although these rights are still strictly curtailed in practice. Individual women have also been making some conspicuous advances in the business sector. The most recent example is the election in late November of two women to the board of directors of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry (JCCI), one of the more powerful public institutions in the kingdom. As one of the successful candidates, Nashwa Taher, told journalists after the election: 'It is an achievement. Of course, we would love more, but for a beginning it is an achievement.'

There are some practical brakes on reform, however. Many of the problems that face Saudi women are not necessarily due to conservative cultural values, but often derive from systemic social problems such as unemployment and the lopsided labour market. 'It is not a question of gender inequality but simply that there are no jobs,' says Loulwa al-Faisal, a leading educationalist. 'The equality of men and women in the workplace has been a long tradition of Saudi Arabia's - it is in our blood. In fact, the jobs are there, but the areas in which these young men and women have decided to become experts there are not the jobs that are on the market. It is a mismatch.'

Shortly after his accession, King Abdullah put job welfare at the top of his list of priorities, ordering a more-than-symbolic 15 per cent pay rise for public sector workers. It was the first such sweeping salary hike in more than 20 years, a period in which the Saudi economy has grown but living standards have declined - in real terms, per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from about $18,000 in 1980 to about $8,000 last year, although the recent surge in oil revenues has provided some respite.

The Saudi authorities are understandably concerned about the potentia

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