Saudi Arabia: Progressive Domestic Policy Conflicts with Aggressive Foreign Policy
Arab Fashion Week Riyadh featured all-female groups of designers, planners, volunteers, and beauty team workers. The event, which was held from April 12-15, was Saudi Arabia’s first time hosting fashion week, and represents another step forward in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push for gender equality and modernization.
Arwa Al-Banawi, the first Saudi designer in the show’s lineup, called the event “a celebratory moment, not only for fashion, but for the kingdom.” Although hosting the show at all felt like a milestone for many female designers, they were also working under restriction. Clothing was not to show any cleavage or knees, and could not incorporate transparent fabrics.
However, many designers didn’t find the requirements restrictive. Al-Banawi feels that “the abaya is like what a kimono is in Japan. It’s just part of our culture. Being in an Islamic country, we do need to respect our religion and dress conservatively, and a lot of women do love wearing the abaya.” She also explains that the abaya, a full-length outer garment, does not need to be black and can come in a variety of colors, patterns, and materials, although many women still choose to wear the traditional black version.
Although women continue to wear abayas in public, Prince Salman has said that wearing one is no longer a requirement. In an interview on 60 Minutes, he said, “The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear [because the law] does not particularly specify a black abaya or black head cover.”
Prince Salman’s reforms are primarily driven by economic needs. During his three-week visit to the United States beginning in March, Prince Salman seeked investments from the U.S. in industries such as nuclear energy, farming, and tourism. Giving women more freedom grows the workforce, is expected to reduce corruption, and will likely appeal to Western nations.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia held a private screening of “Black Panther,” which was the first showing of a commercial film in more than 35 years. Major cities will soon begin construction of a total of around 300 movie theaters, which are expected to bring in more than 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create more than 30,000 jobs by 2030.
But looking beyond domestic social reforms and modernization, Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen continues to contribute to the country’s massive humanitarian crisis. In March, a resolution in the U.S. Congress would have halted U.S. military support for the Saudi-led campaign, but it was defeated after significant effort from the White House. If Prince Salman wants help pursuing Saudi Arabia’s economic goals, he will need to do more than reforming domestic policies. Hani Sabra, founder of New York-based Alef Advisory, said that “MBS approaches domestic and regional politics in a similar, bold fashion,” and while it is working domestically, it “is creating and intensifying risks” abroad. He’s losing allies in Arab Sunni and European countries.
Although Saudi Arabia’s promotion of economic reform and women’s rights, as shown by fashion week, and by granting women the right to drive, should be applauded, Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen and hardline, inflammatory stance towards Iran cannot be ignored. Before investing in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and other countries must push Prince Salman to adopt a less aggressive and less dangerous foreign policy approach.