On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s
King Abdullah ruled that the nation’s women would be allowed, for the first time,
to vote and run in local elections beginning in 2015. However, Saudi women are still denied the basic rights to drive and to leave the country without permission.
In a rare interview with the U.S. media, Saudi Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel sat down with me on Thursday to discuss the status of
women in her country. As the wife of
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud, King Abdullah’s nephew and the world’s 26th richest person—the largest individual shareholder of
Citigroup—the 28-year-old royal doesn’t just sit on the sidelines. She is the vice chair of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation and an outspoken advocate for Saudi women’s rights.
The Princess says the region is making progress, denies that Middle Eastern women are second-class citizens and argues that Saudi
women must be granted the right to drive to join the rest of the world.
You’ve become a major advocate for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, particularly that Saudi women be able to drive.
Why is that important?
Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel: How long do you have?… It’s symbolic, both inside and outside [Saudi Arabia]. Inside, other than it being an economical barrier—an average woman spends 30% of her salary on a driver—[it’s] a social barrier. She can’t go some places because of this driver, lack of privacy, sometimes safety issues. It is symbolic outside, where we are being judged as suppressed and as happy with the status quo when we’re not. No matter how many great things we do, we’ll always be judged as a country that suppresses women because we’re the only country in the world where women can’t drive. If we want the world to look at us differently, this symbolic issue must change.
What will it take?
A decision by the powers that be. Just like the decision that was made in the ‘60s to allow women to have education, which was very controversial at the time. But still the steps were taken and now we have the highest rates of enrollment in universities.
Tell me about some of your other priorities for women in the region.
The biggest one is the legal sector. We have women graduating from law, but they can’t get their license. They can’t get their license because they have to practice for three years. And she can’t practice for three years until she gets her license. So it’s a big loop. At the Bin Talal Foundation we started a workshop for 600 women lawyers to voice their opinions. If we have more women in courts, inevitably we’ll have women judges. It will be much safer and more comfortable for women to be in courts.
Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal [R], nephew of the ...
Imagine you’re coming into an environment that is all male-dominated. Male lawyers, male judges, male everything. You’re the only woman there and you have to explain a private situation in your case. You really can’t. You end up being on the wrong side of things. Having more women in the legal system is very important to me because I come from a middle class family. My mom is divorced. My aunt is divorced. I know what they went through. I don’t want to see any women go through that again.
How supportive are your husband and his family of your views?
He’s very supportive. I’m blessed to marry such a man who sees his own power through empowering others. He supported the first female pilots. He says, ‘If a woman can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, she can fly.’ Sixty percent of his company are women. He really believes if you support women, you support the community. We need more men like him in our country, who not only support women but are very public about it.
You don’t wear a veil. You’re very fashionable. Are you sending a message with your clothing?
I’m not sending a message. It’s me. I’m not going to be hypocritical to please certain segments. A lot of young girls of my generation are exactly like me in Saudi Arabia. I’m being honest.
The perception among many Western women is that the Middle East is backwards, that women are second-class citizens. What would you say to those women?
We’re not backwards. We’re not second-class citizens. Maybe the rules are backwards and the policies are backwards, but it’s not us. We’re educated. We’re very much respected in our families. We’re entrepreneurs, businesswomen, social leaders. When they come, they’ll see.
The whole world has been watching the development of the Arab Spring. I’m curious to hear your perspective on the uprisings.
I’m from this generation. I’m very proud of what they did, may it be revolutions or evolutions. Every nation is different, and every government is different. The common thing about all these changes in the region is that we all want freedom of speech, more political participation, more economic opportunities and equal rights for men and women. We all want the four major things, and we’re all asking for them, but in different ways.
We’re getting there. Some of these countries will see them short term and some will take longer. I don’t see this generation going back. We’re interconnected. We’re globalized. We’re multilingual. I see us standing our ground. We’ll ask for these things not only for us, but for the generations to come.
Clearly, there’s change underway in Saudi Arabia. Are you hoping for a revolution or small incremental changes over time?
I wouldn’t say ‘small.’ When I said evolution I meant the decisions made by the King. Every week we hear a new decision. You have NGOS collaborating together to support these decisions. You have civil society that’s thriving, where people are getting together to voice their opinions. This is a big movement. You don’t need a revolution to fix things. You can fix them if you have the channels and you create institutions where people can voice their opinions to the government.
Did your husband approve this interview?
I approved it. My husband and I, like any couple in the world, inform each other about what we’re doing, but we don’t get approval. It’s not a school. It’s a marriage. It’s a collaborative effort, and it’s a partnership.