It’s almost three years since I made my second of two business visits to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (I was living in Dubai, United Arab Emirates at the time).
Apparently things haven’t changed much since 2009. In the lead up to the Olympic Summer Games, the Kingdom has officially said (according to Human Rights Watch), that it does not sanction the participation of women in sport.
i was frustrated in my attempts to access a gym when I was there. When I blogged about my conflicted feelings during the visit, I was threatened by fellow Middle Eastern bloggers and vilified in a shower of comments on YouTube, where the video clip I made just before leaving for the airport has so far received 13,000+ views and more dislikes than likes. Here’s the post including clip:
Dateline: May 7, 2009:I just got back from my second visit to The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – a two-day business trip to help a Riyadh-based consultancy with its communications initiatives.
Getting there, being there and even leaving there created a host of mixed feelings, some of which I share in the video clip at the end of this post.
My first weeklong visit to The Kingdom in February 2007 almost didn’t happen because of the onerous process involved in securing a visitor’s visa. As a woman, I was required by the Saudi embassy to produce written permission from a male relative (in my case my ex-husband), to make the trip.
In the video clip below, I say this type of situation was unprecedented for me, but that’s not quite true.
I had forgotten (as I recorded myself yesterday in Riyadh), that I needed my then-husband’s permission for many things, such as getting a driver’s licence or being employed, when we first arrived in the UAE in 1993.
I remember how frustrated I felt in those early days as an expat that I wasn’t allowed to have my own bank account, let alone apply for a credit card simply because I was a woman. I felt like I had stepped into the Stone Age.
Things have changed dramatically in the UAE during the 16 years I’ve been here. Today, I run my own businessand drive my own car. I have bank accounts, credit cards and a liquor licence, all obtained without permission from anyone.
Change Takes Time…
Women in the West take such things for granted, just as we take for granted the fact that we can vote, drive, and demand equality at home and in the workplace. But we sometimes forget that we haven’t always had these rights; it’s been a long and bumpy road to get to where we are now, and the journey certainly isn’t over.
From what I’ve observed, change takes time, and almost always faces resistance from some quarter. Power is never handed over, or even shared, without a struggle.
There are many corners of the world in which women still do not enjoy basic human rights. At the moment, I think Saudi Arabia is likely among them. Why is this so? Perhaps because of cultural, religious, political, and socio-economic factors that people in the West don’t fully understand.
I think too, that in many places, small numbers of extremists hold entire nations hostage, making it extraordinarily difficult for change to occur.
…And It’s In The Making
It’s not my place to judge others. Neither is it to suggest that one way is better than another. We should all have the right as individuals, as well as nations, to follow our chosen paths.
Although I’ve felt uncomfortable during my visits to The Kingdom, I’ve also met wonderfully warm, welcoming and progressive Saudi men and women who love their country, and take great pride in its achievements – of which there are many.
During my short visits, I also saw indications that people such as these are driving changes that will help all Saudis, and Saudi women in particular, to contribute more fully to the success of their country, just as Emirati women have been strongly encouraged to do in the UAE in recent years.