The Curious Case of Saudi Arabia

A FEW DAYS ago I took advantage of the soon-to-depart walkabout weather and visited, as I do from time to time, Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. There, one may find the Famous Five monument, an exact copy of which exists in Calgary (I’ve been to that as well).

In the case that you are unfamiliar, this October 2000 installation memorializes the successful efforts of Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards (the five famous individuals in question) to extract from the relevant authorities a much-overdue Canadian acknowledgement that women are persons under the British North America Act. Indeed, the challenge which in 1929 received the assent of the British Privy Council is known as the “Persons case.”

As we contemplate the significance of King Abdullah’s granting of the vote to women, I note that it was not long ago that the Supreme Court of Canada denied in its ruling that women were persons and thus eligible to appointment to the Senate. It required an appeal to an even higher authority, which is to say the direct agents of the Queen, to get the thing done. A decision we would today consider forward-looking had within it deliberation of what already in the 1920s appeared to be a species of backwardness. As a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council noted, “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours, but it must be remembered that the necessity of the times often forced on man customs which in later years were not necessary.”

There is a degree of disingenuity in this, of course. The fact of political affairs everywhere and in all ages is that customs are forced upon the times at least as often as the times force the customs — the operative bit being not “on man” but rather “by men.” There is no better example of this principle than the early 20th-Century adoption and subsequent imposition upon the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula of Salafist, or as it was soon labelled by opponents, Wahhabist ideology. The times change, but the entire point of some creeds is to do all that is required to retard or otherwise impede what in any case is inevitable. The effort throughout human history has included all manner of violence, actual or threatened, as well as more subtle forms of manipulation. In Afghanistan, the tribalist Taliban war against modernity took the brutal and unoriginal but effective form of murder. The House of Saud is a more nuanced beast, its hands bloodied by the deeds of terrorism while necessarily also attentive to the material facts in its immediate environs.

These facts include the eventual exhaustion of oil wealth and a young, restless population that will not indefinitely tolerate their pampered and aloof parasite class. If ever the endgame were in question, the Arab Spring I suspect has put any residual doubt to the curb. The Saudi royal family plays both sides of the table, and always has. Their rise has depended upon Bedouin as well as Britain, and in the West’s war on terror they are, like Pakistan, both an ally and an opponent. The two-faced game has its predictable domestic aspect, in which the offer of a symbolic vote (as if the affairs of the state were determined by popular elections) arrives concurrently with a lawsuit over Saudi funding for al Qaeda and with the trial of a woman who defied the notorious driving ban.

There is no denying that the Saudi regime is of the reformist variety. The women of that country are, like women elsewhere, young and increasingly educated and confident. As a consequence it may be that a sort of slow-motion Arab Spring is underway, cautiously acknowledged by the King but driven by the women who will no longer be kept down.

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