Megan Stack’s recounting of her life in Saudi Arabia is a reminder that for all the ink that’s been wasted on bringing liberalism to the Muslim world by bombing Muslim country or yelling really loudly at Iran, there are much more obvious things that could be done:
The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.
People could organize a boycott in the US and Europe against Western fast food franchises that enforce this kind of gender apartheid abroad. The Saudi market’s not that big, in the scheme of things, it would be relatively easy to put companies in a position where it’s not financially worth it for them to keep operating Saudi franchises under those conditions. Maybe the Saudi regime would let them operate differently. Maybe they’d agree to pay the price of isolation and activists would need to move on to the next economic sector. It does, however, seem to me that the Saudi elite prizes maintaining some degree of integration with the cultural and commercial mainstream and wouldn’t want to see Western brands all withdraw from their country.