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Women and Sports in Saudi Arabia

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, May 8, 2013

Last summer, I wrote about two young women from Saudi Arabia, Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar, who were the first Saudi women ever to compete in the Olympics. They had to endure criticism from conservatives at home and lots of discussion about what they would wear to compete, but they served as a powerful symbol of a better future for Saudi women’s athletic participation.

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Youth, Change, and the Future of Saudi Arabia

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, March 19, 2013

Saudi watchers have for years debated the stability of the kingdom. In the 1960s, with internecine rivalries dividing the royal family and the kingdom struggling to pay its debts, some American diplomats predicted that the House of Saud wouldn’t last but a few more years. When extremists took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, pundits warned that Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, like that of the Shah in Iran, would be the next to fall to religious revolution. In recent years, as the Arab revolutions have swept the Middle East, new questions about Saudi stability, especially given the limitations of its ruling gerontocracy, have come to the fore. Karen Elliott House, in her recent book On Saudi Arabia, paints a dire picture of a “disintegrating society, and the deterioration is only accelerating.”

Is time quickly running out on the House of Saud, or will the kingdom somehow manage to muddle through? The answer to that question lies in large part with the next generation. Sixty-four percent of Saudi Arabia’s nearly twenty million people are under the age of thirty; the largest youth cohort includes those who are currently only twelve to sixteen years old. Saudi youth are avid Internet and social media users (YouTube use in Saudi Arabia rose 260 percent in 2012, versus an average of 50 percent growth internationally), and are more connected to the outside world than ever before. Moreover, an unprecedented number of Saudi students – some 145,000—are currently studying abroad in thirty countries around the world, nearly half of them in the United States. How will this younger generation shape the future of their country?
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Women’s Security in the Middle East and North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on Middle East Voices, March 12, 2013

“It is time for an uprising of women in the Arab world,” writes Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW News in Lebanon in the second annual publication to mark International Women’s Day by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. (more…)

Bolstering Education and Science in the Arab World

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on Middle East Voices, February 4, 2013

A decade ago, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) shone a spotlight on the sorry state of education in the Arab world with its inaugural Arab Human Development Report in 2002, and its 2003 follow-on report, “Building a Knowledge Society.” The reports’ statistics still shock: in one year, Spain translates the same number of books (around 10,000) as the entire Arab world has translated since the ninth century; on a per capita basis, the Arab world produces only about 2 percent of the scientific papers that industrialized countries do; between 1980 and 2000, all Arab countries together registered only 370 patents in the U.S., versus 7,652 from Israel. (more…)

Women in Politics in Saudi Arabia

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on theAtlantic.com, January 16, 2013

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made history when he named thirty women to the kingdom’s Shura Council, an appointed advisory body that cannot enact legislation but is still the closest institution to a parliament in that country. He also amended the Shura Council’s law to ensure that women would make up no less than 20 percent of the 150-person council going forward.

Friday’s announcement did not occur in a vacuum. Before now, some women served in an advisory capacity, but not as full members, on the committee. In 2011, King Abdullah, known for relatively moderate views on women’s roles in society, announced that women would be appointed to the Shura Council and that women would be able to run and vote in the country’s 2015 municipal elections. (more…)

Saudi Women at the Olympics

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, August 9, 2012

Just before the Olympics started, I wrote about how for the first time ever, each participating country was sending at least one female competitor to the Games. The participation of two Saudi Arabian women was particularly groundbreaking: until the eleventh hour, it looked as if the Saudi government would not allow them to compete. Now, as the end of the Games approaches, these women have won symbolic victories, though not without struggle and controversy.

Just sixteen years-old, Saudi Arabia’s judo athlete Wojdan Shaherkani last week officially became the first Saudi Arabian woman ever to compete in the Olympics. Although she lost quickly to Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica, a twenty-eight year-old ranked thirteenth worldwide, she was cheered by a supportive crowd. Shaherkani’s time at the Olympics was also marked by debate over her attire. The Saudi government required her to wear a head covering, which judo’s official rules, grounded in concern for athletes’ safety, would not allow. Eventually, Shaherkani was permitted to wear a head covering that looks like a swim cap in the match. (more…)

Women at the Olympics

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, July 24, 2012

This is the summer of the female Olympian. For the first time, every nation competing will have a woman on its team. In an important milestone, the United States is sending more women than men to compete in London. Even the conservative Islamic state of Saudi Arabia is allowing women to participate. Let’s appreciate that it’s taken women more than a century of struggle to reach this point.

During the first modern Olympics in 1896, women were completely barred from competition. Nevertheless, a Greek woman named Stamata Revithi decided to unofficially run the marathon anyway, finishing in five and a half hours. (Revithi was truly at the vanguard of women’s running—women did not compete in Olympic marathons until 1984). (more…)

Saudi Arabia’s Study Abroad Program

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, June 26, 2012

Saudi Arabia is the starkest mix of medieval and modern of any country in the world. It is ranked seventeenth in global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum and boasts world-class skyscrapers and infrastructure; but it is ruled by an aging and sclerotic absolute monarchy that kowtows to its deeply conservative religious establishment. Just last week, Saudi Arabia beheaded a man found guilty of “witchcraft and sorcery.” At least two people met a similarly grizzly end last year for sorcery. With one foot in the seventh century and one in the twenty-first, Saudi Arabia’s balancing act seems more improbable every year. (more…)

The Saudi Transition and Women’s Right to Drive

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, June 21, 2012

Last Sunday, June 17, marked the first anniversary of the Saudi Women2Drive campaign. Activists had planned another driving demonstration to mark the anniversary, calling on Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to take to the roads and to flood the traffic department with applications. They also called on men to support their wives, sisters, and mothers by sitting beside them in the passenger seat as they defied the driving ban. The demonstration was postponed, however, due to the death of Crown Prince Nayef last weekend. As head of the Interior Ministry for decades, Nayef had long taken a hard line on women driving. Although there is no law that specifically prohibits women from driving, Nayef had made clear that they would never gain that right under his watch. After a women’s driving demonstration in 1990 (in which women were arrested, as they were last year), he issued a formal ban on women behind the wheel. (more…)

Saudi Arabia, Women, and Judicial Reform

by Isobel Coleman
This article originally appeared on her blog Democracy in Development, May 17, 2012

While I was visiting Saudi Arabia last week, King Abdullah fired one of the most popular Islamic leaders in the Kingdom from his government position. Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan was an advisor to the royal court until last week when, in a single line, the king ordered that the sheikh resign from his post. The reaction was swift. In newspapers, on Facebook, and on Twitter, Obeikan’s supporters and detractors speculated, gloated over, and lamented the sheikh’s inglorious fall. While it is still not clear what happened, it is safe to say that this is yet another episode in Saudi Arabia’s internal struggle to define the role of women in society. (more…)