Saudi Arabian women’s rights and the Arab Spring uprisings

Contextualizing grassroots activism and state reforms

Authored by: Magdalena Karolak

Handbook of Arab Women and Arab Spring

Print publication date:  November  2013
Online publication date:  November  2013

Print ISBN: 9781857437126
eBook ISBN: 9781315858661
Adobe ISBN:


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The wave of the Arab Spring uprisings prompted speculations of the ‘domino effect’ in the Middle East. Indeed, after toppling the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt and the outbreak of civil war in Libya, the revolutionary wave seemed unstoppable in the region. These expectations weakened, however, when the Bahraini Arab Spring was halted by what (Kamrava 2012) referred to as the Saudi-led counter-revolution. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has sought to ‘contain, and perhaps to even reverse, the Arab Spring as much as possible’ (Kamrava 2012: 96). Saudi Arabs constituted the bulk of the Peninsula Shield force troops that entered Bahrain on 14 March 2011 and put an end to the Bahraini uprising. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia dealt with its own Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations in an uncompromising manner, protecting its territory from the revolutionary contagion at all costs. Saudi Arabia experienced what one might call ‘the Arab Spring that wasn’t’ (Matthiesen 2013). The use of force and a sectarian narrative may have sufficed to deter the diffusion of demonstrations from the Eastern Province to other parts of the country in addition to the tight control of information and communications technology (ICT) before the date of the Saudi Day of Rage 1 (Freedom House 2012). Yet, the political transformations in the Middle East have not left Saudi Arabia fully immune to changes. Social movements in the region renewed the zeal of the Saudi grassroots online activism. They also fostered further government spending and cautious reforms. Within this context, the question of Saudi women’s rights is especially interesting. Even though the government led by King Abdullah ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Sa’ud (2005–present) recognized the need to expand opportunities for women (Weston 2008: xiv), Saudi women’s social and cultural rights were repeatedly rated the lowest in the Middle East in 2005 (Freedom House 2005) and in 2010 (World Economic Forum 2010). It is thus necessary to analyse the recent steps to include women in the public sphere in the new post-Arab Spring context. King Abdullah’s decisions to grant women the right to vote and to stand for municipal elections as well as to include women in the Shura revive the fundamental debate on women in Saudi society, where women’s faces are discreetly airbrushed or blurred in pictures on public display. The question whether women are to be considered adults with full rights as citizens or treated as permanently immature, thus requiring constant supervision by their closest male relatives, still stands (Doumato 2001: 166).

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