London – Yasmine El-Geressi
“I would like for the dialogue of what we look like to no longer be in the narrative,” one of Saudi Arabia’s top female officials Princess Reema bint Bandar told Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, on Friday. She was in London as part of the delegation accompanying Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
“We look and sound different, but our mental capacity is equal” said the US-raised Princess, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and key figure in the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s program of socioeconomic change in her role as the Vice-President for Development and Planning at the Saudi General Sports Authority.
During the discussion panel on the rapid transformations taking place in Saudi Arabia, the Princess called for people to “get over” their “fixation on the appearance” of Saudi women and shift their focus to “capacity and capability.”
“I need us to get over the word conservative being linked to a woman that is fully covered because I have found profoundly liberal women who are covered top to bottom and very conservative women that look and dress like myself,” Princess Reema added.
Princess Reema discussed some of the deeper issues being addressed in the Kingdom on its path to greater women’s rights that have flown under the media radar. “You are talking to us about women driving, the abaya and the hijab, we are saying as women: job opportunities, domestic abuse, safety on the streets. We are talking about the issues that affect us in our day to day lives.”
“In the span of a year and a half, the movement of women’s rights is moving, it shall not end because women’s issues will not end. The issue today is not the issue of tomorrow,’ she said.
On the male guardianship issue, the Princess said: “every time I have an interview, they mention guardianship as if I am going to wilt away. I am not. It is a conversation that every single one of us has, and has been having for the past 50 years.”
She explained that the guardianship system is “melting away” and freeing women to engage with the community in a more “inclusive and viable way”. The princess pointed to 30 women appointed to the Shura council as a sign of progress. “Women’s dialogue and needs are elevated to a public sphere. That is progress because we are asking for what we want ourselves,” she said.
To the sceptics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan that promises to support and unlock the full potential of youth and women in Saudi society, Princess Reema asked: “how much louder do you want us to be about the fact that we are pivoting?”
“There is no way to appease every single naysayer, there is no way to hit every single statistic, but there will be key measurable points of change,” she added.
And to those who ask why today, Princess Reema explained: “As a young nation we had to invest in infrastructure. That is finished. We are focusing on the next capital which is human capital. It is the next step in the evolution of this nation. It is not for anyone but ourselves but I assure you as a global environment, you are the beneficiary of this focus.”
“What we are trying to do in this country is to be role models. We were role models in certain things but that was exclusive to the Islamic world and that is what we are trying to be the world of social development and social progress,” Princess Reema added.
Saudi women have had a momentous year as the young, reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lifted a number of key restrictions on their rights as part of the wide-ranging social and economic reform initiative. Women can now attend football matches, partake in sports themselves and by the summer will be allowed to drive cars.