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Saudi King Abdullah is poised to appoint* women for the first time as members of the country’s Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council).

The move is symbolically important, but the assembly itself lacks real power.

The king first announced his intention to appoint women to the Majlis al-Shura over a year ago, and, since that time, newspaper reports have typically indicated that around 30 women would be appointed to the currently 150-member unelected body. Of late, however, these expectations have been reduced to a possible 15 female appointees.

insight eiu new INSIGHT: Small Step Forward for Saudi WomenAccording to reports this week in the Saudi press, 12 of the prospective 15 are already consultants at the Majlis al-Shura. The allocation of female advisers to the assembly first occurred two years ago, as a first step in trying to create acceptance of the idea of women participating fully in the assembly.

Arguably, in a body in which men and women cannot sit together (women will only participate “virtually,” from another room), their conversion from the status of consultants is not that dramatic a move. However, it is also worth noting that the suggested women (namely, those mentioned in the press) are individuals from a highly educated background, often with a public profile. They, therefore, can be assumed to want to assert their voice in the ensuing debates.

“The inclusion of women in an all-appointed consultative body is relatively significant by Saudi standards….” – The Economist Intelligence Unit

One of the prospective new entrants to the Shura Council is a deputy education minister, Norah al-Fayez, whose appointment as a minister a year ago, even though she is solely responsible for girls’ education, attracted the ire of the highly conservative religious establishment. How a minister can sit in what is officially presented as a legislative body is unclear, unless she is to be removed in a forthcoming cabinet reshuffle.

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A general view of a session of the Shura Council presided over by Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh (Reuters file photo).

Nevertheless, appointing women to the Majlis marks another step forward in the king’s steady, albeit cautious, program to enhance the rights of women, and reinforces expectations that women will be allowed to participate in the next municipal elections (female suffrage was supposed to have been introduced at the polls in 2011, but it never happened).

However, it is equally important to note, whatever the significance of the appointment of women to the Shura Council, the assembly itself has little to no power: it acts largely as an advisory body, rather than a legislature, with key decisions still the preserve of the king, in coordination with a small coterie of advisers, including senior princes.

The inclusion of women in an all-appointed consultative body is relatively significant by Saudi standards, but is not expected to affect the structure and content of the government decision-making.

* King Abdullah announced the appointments shortly after publication of this article.

This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

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 INSIGHT: Small Step Forward for Saudi Women

The Economist Intelligence Unit

This post has been authored by experts of The Economist Intelligence Unit.

  • JKF2

    Progress is very good news, given that the Saudi Arabia’s Royal family are the guardians of their faith, they can’t just leapfrog without creating massive societal unrest. Moving forward, without ensuring, that men are acclimatized to the changes, through formal mandatory education programs, may in the end backfire. If you try to legislate change without a cultural change/mind set change, through education, the chances are the progress will only be very superficial, and not effective. We see this issue of continued racism in many countries, notwithstanding the strong laws against it, but unfortunately the strong laws are not backed by equally strong educationl programs, the strong laws have failed to reduce racism.

    • Thin-ice

      I think you mean “sexism”, instead of “racism”.

      • JKF2

        Sorry, no I did not mean sexism, because most countries, at least in the West do have anti-racist laws; and those laws are strong in paper but weak in reality, and in my opinion they are weak because mandatory education programs are not in place to educate people to be tolerant of differences. And yes, anti-sexism laws would be goood, but still without good educational programs, will probably not work. I may add, that men, in the beginig were hunters, and that natural disposition still persists today; they had to use brute force, coniving, cheating, misleading,,, the prey to succeed; while women were gatheres and home builders a different skill set, that developed them into using their brains rather than the muscles, equivalent to men, they did not have; and I am a man and observer of the human condition. As a consequence, in countries were women are not allowed to fully participate in societies, those societies are normally weak, poor, backward, undeveloped, ever fighting… all the manly attributes of tribal societies; and incapable to sustain themselves. History shows that great progress was not made in Western societies, until women were emancipated, and much later allowed to fully participate. SA is lucky to have oil reserves, otherwise it would be the same as other nations that have not emancipated their women = poor.