No country on earth is more brutal and oppressive in its treatment of women than Saudi Arabia. The Saudi state, which is officially controlled by men of the royal family, has kept women encased and immobilized in a poisonous web of binding religious and legal restrictions, like the victims of a monstrous spider.
This December, the monarchy that rules this rich and powerful oil kingdom made a concession. For the very first time, women were allowed to vote and run for office in local elections to municipal councils.
It was a very small concession. A mountain of restrictions on women’s lives and actions remain. But Saudi women have had to fight hard to get even this far. Out of a total population of 20 million, only 131,000 women were registered to vote in the election, but some 82 percent of them cast their ballots. Some 19 women won seats in municipal councils, which, like all political bodies in Saudi Arabia, have only an “advisory” role — decisions are made by the princes.
The candidates could not campaign directly — they were not allowed to show their faces to men, who had to speak for them. They could not drive to the polls or to meetings about their campaigns. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Despite all the restrictions, 979 women had the courage to run for office. The reaction of Saudi women to the election was mixed. Some saw it as a great victory; others were skeptical and saw it as mere show on the part of the rulers. The opening to women was expected; it had been decreed in 2011 by then-King Abdullah, who has since died.
An important thing to keep in mind: This electoral change involved only Saudi citizens. There are millions of immigrant workers in Saudi Arabia, most from Africa and Asia, who have absolutely no rights. Many of them are women who do domestic work for pitiful wages, if they are paid at all. Many are sexually abused by their employers and have no legal recourse. This election had no direct effect on their lives.
Saudi Arabia is one of the U.S.’s main partners in the Middle East. Between 1950 and 2006, one-fifth of all U.S. arms sales went to Saudi Arabia. Billions of dollars are given every year so the Saudis can buy more expensive U.S. military equipment and fatten the bank accounts of the war profiteers. More recently, the Pentagon has provided drones, special forces and military coordination for the murderous Saudi offensive against rebel forces in the country of Yemen, the poorest in the region.
While capitalist politicians in the U.S. like to claim they have helped pressure Saudi Arabia to grant more human rights to its people, the truth is actually the opposite. It has been support from Washington and other imperialist capitals that has built up a clique of despotic Saudi aristocrats into a military and economic power that opposes all progressive change in the region.