Side angles permitted

Welcome to the second edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed


Full visage

The first time Princess Reema bint Bandar came to the attention of many people was when she spoke at SXSW in Austin, Texas in 2015. She was there to speak about women empowerment, but the press received an usual request before her talk started:

“Please be informed that photographers can not photograph Princess Reema’s full visage,” a SXSW publicist emphasised to press in an email on Wednesday. “Only side angles are permitted.”

She has come a long way since then. The princess was appointed to a senior position at the kingdom’s General Sports Authority in 2016 and has increasingly become one of the most visible female voices promoting the vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

She grew up in the US while her father Prince Bandar served as ambassador between 1983-2005, gaining the nickname “Bandar Bush” for his closeness to the Bush political dynasty. Her mother is a sister of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the longtime Saudi foreign minister who passed away in 2015.

The job of the kingdom’s ambassador Washington would be challenging for someone without any diplomatic experience even at the best of time, and it would be an understatement to say that Saudi-US relations have experienced some serious turbulence over the last few months.

Trump has defended the alliance following the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but democrats in Congress appear likely to continue pressing the White House on the issue by demanding accountability and urging Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record.

Yellow slip nightmares

The appointment of Princess Reema, which has been rumoured for months, signals that the kingdom wants to change the conversation by bringing in a fresh voice. A recent controversy surrounding an e-government app by the interior ministry offers a good example of the challenges waiting for her as she attempts to repair Saudi reputation in the US.

Absher is a bundle of services offered by the the ministry to help citizens deal with official paperwork without visiting government offices. This has made bureaucratic chores like renewing passports or paying traffic fines a painless experience when compared to the old of way of waiting in line at crowded and disorganised departments.

One of the services that can be accessed through Absher allows man to issue travel permits for dependents, including foreign workers under his sponsorship, his minor children.. and women. Before the system was implemented, men had to visit passport offices to obtain a yellow paper slip that women attach to their passports to show they have permission to leave the country.

Making this process available online, first through the ministry’s website and later via apps for iOS and Android platforms, has arguably made life easier for many women who need to travel while male guardianship rules are still in place. 

The poor understanding of how the system works (Insider published a story inaccurately describing it as a “sinister online database” that gives men the power to “catch [women] trying to leave without permission”), combined with the country’s poor record on women’s rights, has led to a debate in the US on whether American tech giants are helping Saudi Arabia to discriminate against women amid calls on Apple and Google to remove the app from their stores.

The interior ministry has denounced what it called a “systematic campaign” targeting the service and warned against “politicising legitimate use of technology tools.” Google has rejected calls to remove the app, saying it it does not violate any agreements. Apple said the app remains under review.

Welcome to the swamp

Would removing the app result in any improvement of women’s living conditions in Saudi Arabia? Probably not, since users will still be able to access the service from the web interface. But there is an argument for the indirect impact for such step:

Hala Aldosary, a Saudi scholar and activist based in the United States, said that the removal of the app by Apple and Google could send an important message to leaders like Prince Mohammed, who have sought out partnerships with global tech firms in efforts to enhance their economies.

“If the tech companies would say, ‘You are being oppressive,’ that would mean a lot,” Ms. Aldosary said.

But removing the app would not get rid of the country’s guardianship laws, she said, and men could still change their female relatives’ status online or in government offices. “The app is a means to an end, but it is not the end,” she said. “But it does make the lives of guardians easier.”

Even some women who fled the country to escape the guardianship system say they used the Absher service to grant themselves permission to leave, something that would not have been possible if the notorious yellow slip was still in place.

It was highly unlikely that such an issue would have been picked up by American media and politicians in the past, but the special relationship between the White House and the crown prince means anything Saudi-related is now under heavy scrutiny regardless of context.

This inhospitable environment will be awaiting Princess Reema when she arrives in Washington in the coming weeks, and she will be expected to use every ounce of her social and political skills to make her mark and help restore confidence between Riyadh and Capitol Hill.

In case you missed it

My latest story for FT, co-written with Middle East editor Andrew England, examines the issue of Saudi unemployment, a central challenge for the crown prince as he continues to push his ambitious economic and social reform programme


That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.