The latest in a series of government reforms will allow women to serve as soldiers in Saudi Arabia’s internal security forces for the first time. Can such moves inspire a nationwide change in gender perceptions? Talal Alfayez and Sara Almohamadi explore the shifting dynamics of a predominantly conservative society.

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By Talal Alfayez, Research Analyst, Middle East and the Gulf Programme, and Sara Almohamadi, Research Assistant, Middle East and the Gulf Programme

Saudi Arabia’s recent move to allow women to join its internal security forces is the latest in a series of reforms enacted by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to advance the rights of women in the conservative Gulf kingdom. Allowing women to have greater visibility both in the armed forces and in other sectors not only promises to help diversify the economy, but could also help shift popular gender perceptions more broadly.

Riyadh announced in late February that it would open up new positions for women within the General Security Directorate of its Ministry of Interior. Soldier-rank positions will be available for women across seven of Saudi Arabia’s 13 regions including Riyadh, Mecca, al-Qassim al-Madina, Assir, Ash-Sharqiya and Al-Baha. Potential candidates must be aged between 25 and 35, must not be married to a non-Saudi national, and, most notably, must provide proof that their male guardian works in the same region where the job is located, among other requirements. Despite these restrictions, the move to allow women access to one of the country’s most visible and vital sectors is significant.

Internal security and administrative posts within the General Security Directorate will be open to female applicants for the first time. Policewomen are likely to be recruited in preparation for the lifting of the ban on female drivers in June 2018. Moreover, Shura Council Member Iqbal Darandari called in February for the introduction of mandatory military training for Saudi men and women to enable them to defend their country. ‘Conscription is today a national necessity and should include both men and women,’ she said. ‘Women must be trained to serve their country and defend themselves and their homeland in case of a crisis, war or attack in any region.’ Although the prospect of women serving on the frontline is a distant one, voluntary military service for women – which has been instituted in the neighbouring UAE – would be a significant development. 

Inspiring a broader societal shift?

Opening the military sector to women could help to shift gender perceptions more broadly. Traditionally, Saudi women have been most visible in the educational and medical sectors. Under the late King Abdullah, new sectors such as retail were also made accessible to women. More recently, however, more significant opportunities have arisen for women in sectors that had previously been exclusively accessible to men. For instance, a recent Royal Decree appointed Tamadhur Al-Rammah as a deputy for the Minister of Labour and Social Development for Social Affairs. Sarah Al-Arifi has also been recently appointed to the Football Federation, Reema bint Bandar heads the Saudi Federation for Community Sports and the public prosecutor’s office has said it will begin recruiting women investigators for the first time. The kingdom has also opened up 140 staff positions for women at airport security and border crossings. As soldiers, however, women will now have access to one of the most vital – and traditionally masculine – sectors.

The Crown Prince’s reform plan appears to have strong public support, especially among Saudi’s youth, who constitute 70% of the population. Among the goals outlined in Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, an ambitious agenda announced in 2015 focused on diversification away from the oil and gas sector, is the nurturing of human capital. In a bid to address the country’s high unemployment rate, efforts towards diversification are being further propelled by encouraging a shift towards a knowledge economy. This will require the further inclusion of Saudi Arabia’s women, who represent an untapped resource. Today they account for more than half of the country’s university graduates, but only 22% of its workforce. One of the targets of Vision 2030 is to increase that share to 30%. 

In Saudi Arabia’s predominantly conservative society, nationwide shifts in gender perceptions and roles are likely to lag behind changes in policy, particularly given that these are top-down reforms and are being introduced at an uncharacteristically rapid pace for the kingdom.  However, the decision to allow women to join the military is a step in the right direction and has the potential to effect broader societal change.

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