On May 22, Saudi police arrested a 32 year-old woman named Manal al-Sharif for driving while female. Just three days earlier, President Barack Obama gave a wide-ranging speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa. In that speech, Obama stated America “will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men… The region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.” Conspicuously absent from Obama’s speech, however, was any mention of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi authorities held Sharif for nine days, releasing her on May 31 after charging her with “inciting women to drive” and “rallying public opinion.” But her defiance of Saudi Arabia’s ban on driving while female—one of its many violations of women’s human rights—comes at a critical time for the country. Its geriatric leadership is hoping to weather the winds of revolt and reform sweeping in from North Africa by buying off potential unrest.
Manal al-Sharif’s arrest is a clear attempt by Saudi officials to discourage protest and dissent. Prior to her arrest, Sharif was organizing a mass-drive protest against the ban on women driving on June 17—a campaign that attracted 12,000 supporters on Facebook before Sharif’s arrest.
As Wajiha Howeidar, a women’s rights activist who worked with Sharif prior to her arrest, put it, Saudi authorities “don’t want anybody to think you can get away with something like that. It is a clear message that you cannot organize anything on Facebook. That is why she is in prison.”
Women, then, are on the front line of reform in Saudi Arabia.
Clearly, the Saudi ban on female driving—as well as other Saudi violations of women’s human rights—and the repression of those women courageous enough to defy the ban violate the universal rights President Obama insists apply to both men and women. But thus far the administration’s response has been weak. A State Department spokesperson refused to comment directly on Sharif’s arrest and stated only that the United States “understand[s] there’s an active debate on a lot of social issues in Saudi Arabia, and we trust the government of Saudi Arabia to be—to give careful consideration to these voices of its citizens as they speak about issues of concern.”
So what should the Obama administration do?
It needs to be prepared for the potential June 17 protest by Saudi women and the potential for their arrest by Saudi authorities. So far, the administration has been reactive, if understandably so, to the revolts in the region. While the June 17 effort may fizzle, it offers the administration a chance to be prepared for a potential moment of change in Saudi Arabia. In this season of widespread regional revolt and angst, the administration should not be unprepared for announced protests.
The administration should also speak out publicly on the issue rather than defer to the Saudi monarchy. While the absence of any mention of Saudi Arabia in President Obama’s May 19 speech on reform in the region was understandable from a strategic perspective, it was also glaring. Saudi Arabia is of course critical to global energy markets, counterterrorism, and regional stability. But charges of hypocrisy will only grow and undermine American credibility on universal rights in the region if Washington noticeably fails to publicly challenge a critical ally with an abysmal record on the issue.
Saudi women activists have already called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to support their right-to-drive campaign, saying a public statement of support “would be a game changing moment.” If the administration deems such public statements of support not possible or appropriate the least the United States can do is condemn arrests that take place on June 17 if planned driving protests do occur. Simply publicly acknowledging that a wrong has taken place that violates the universal rights President Obama has repeatedly proclaimed would be a great step forward from State Department spokesmen’s feeble statements.
Beyond the June 17 protest there are multiple symbolic and substantive ways the Obama administration can help Saudi women advance their cause themselves.
It can, for example, acknowledge the efforts of women activists to work for change in Saudi Arabia. Since 2007, the State Department has given out annual International Women of Courage Awards to women around the world who work to advance women’s rights. But only 1 of 46 women honored has been Saudi. Next year’s awards should include at least one Saudi woman activist who has advocated for greater freedom for women, like Manal al-Sharif or Wajiha Howeidar.
Similarly, U.S. officials should meet both publicly and privately with Saudi women activists when traveling through Saudi Arabia or the region, or when these women travel to the United States. Secretary Clinton would be an ideal interlocutor given her ongoing interest in and advocacy for women’s rights internationally.
More substantively, the Obama administration should protect funding for the Middle East Partnership Initiative from budget cuts. In Saudi Arabia, MEPI has supported legal training programs for women and the Saudi Women’s Civic Participation project. Funding from MEPI also supported (via the National Democratic Institute) the political campaigns of four women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament. Other efforts to support female political participation and activism have occurred in Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen.
Ideally MEPI’s budget would be increased to expand the scope of such efforts. But today’s domestic political environment makes such an expansion impossible. The Obama administration should focus on protecting such funding that currently exists for these programs.
Additionally, the Obama administration should seek to foster a dialogue between women activists and politicians from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Women have served as members of parliament and cabinet ministers in Kuwait, minister of foreign trade in the United Arab Emirates, and the ambassador to the United States from Oman. Secretary Clinton or Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer should organize a conference in the Gulf region bringing these women together with activists from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to pool their resources and ideas on how to improve women’s rights and status in their countries. The goal would be to get Gulf women activists talking to each other and exchanging ideas on how to promote women’s rights and equality in their own societies.
In short, the United States can help Saudi and Gulf women help themselves by serving as a facilitator for a regional network of activists and politicians focused on advancing women’s rights.
President Obama has stated that universal rights are the property of both genders. And Saudi women are attempting to prove it in the face of a repressive government. For the United States to continue to have any credibility on universal rights as political upheaval continues to rock the Middle East and North Africa—not to mention stay true to its own proclaimed values—it cannot remain silent as Saudi women defy laws and customs that violate their human rights. America should help Saudi women challenging these norms help themselves through moral, financial, and organizational support. If not, we risk losing touch with our own values and the tide of change sweeping the region.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.
Senior Policy Analyst