As the Arab Spring continues to unfold in the Middle East and North Africa, the Obama administration handled the autocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia with kid gloves. President Obama’s May 19 Middle East speech entirely omitted criticism of Saudi Arabia’s rights record, where the monarchy there responded to the Arab Spring by paying out cash to mollify discontent and invading neighboring Bahrain at the behest of its royals to suppress unrest there.
At some point, though, the issue of human rights in one of the region’s — and certainly the Gulf’s — most powerful countries will need to addressed. A good place to start is Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving.
With the advent of a narrowly-focused indigenous campaign aimed at allowing women to drive in the gulf kingdom, the Obama administration faces an opportunity to show that it has a commitment to human rights in the region — even in friendly nations. Pressing Saudi Arabia, a crucial ally and oil supplier, may have costs for the United States. But the cost of having U.S. hypocrisy on full display would also be great, calling into question any proclaimed U.S. interest in advancing rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
Most importantly, the campaign for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia dovetails with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s focus on the issues. At the U.S. Islamic World Forum in April, Clinton told the audience:
Wherever we can, we will accelerate our work to develop stronger bonds with the people themselves – with civil society, business leaders, religious communities, women and minorities.
And speaking to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for an article in the Atlantic this month, Clinton singled out the fact that women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia as a cause for concern:
When people start to say that there are certain things that women should not be permitted to do, and the only way we can stop them is pass laws, like you can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, or you can’t vote … that’s a red line, and that infringes on the rights of women. Therefore I am against it.
Having stated her desire to have stronger bonds with women in the region and her opposition to the specific laws banning women from driving, Clinton and the Obama administration should push forward with light pressure on this specific cause and wider women’s issues in Saudi Arabia.
CAP’s Peter Juul put together a helpful guide to the women’s driving campaign in Saudi Arabia and tips for pushing these ideas forward while not costing the U.S. too much. Of the five main points, the first is the most obvious: Give moral support to Saudi women campaigning and protesting for their right to travel during a pre-organized June 17 action:
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.
Juul’s next four fixes have less to do directly with women’s campaign to drive in Saudi Arabia, but still focus on the rights of women there. He suggests: giving a State Department human rights award to a female Saudi activist; meeting either privately or publicly with these women on trips in the region; protecting funding for the Middle East Partnership Initiative, which funds civil society organizations and supports women in politics and other civil roles; and organize a conference for Gulf women to “pool their resources and ideas on how to improve women’s rights and status in their countries.”
“In short,” writes Juul, “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.”