British Prime Minister Theresa May is one of the most powerful women in the world at the moment. As I write, she is visiting one of the most misogynistic Arab regimes where human rights and women’s rights hang on the whim of a king.
Somewhat deluded, May has said that Saudi women will be inspired by the sight of a female leader holding talks with the kingdom’s most powerful men. Which is one way of looking at it. I’d prefer to believe that, in reality, she, like Margaret Thatcher before her, cares not one jot for women’s rights or human rights as long as billions can be made out of flogging weapons of war to the sort of Arab dictators who think nothing of using the same arms to bomb schools, hospitals and civilian areas. That is exactly what Saudi Arabia has done over the past couple of years in Yemen with British-made weapons.
Like Thatcher, all May will prove is that, despite her gender, such awful women can make the same oppressive, freedom-slaying decisions as men can — and do — and to hell with the consequences.
Had she adopted a firm stance, cancelled weapons orders and refused to deal with the Saudis until they changed their appalling record on human rights and women’s rights, then she might have been the sort of role model and inspiration that Saudi women need so desperately. Although nothing would have happened overnight — it rarely does in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — such a rebuff on the world stage would eventually have had a major impact on the decision-makers in Riyadh.
I have travelled in Saudi extensively and have Saudi friends within and outside the country. The women there are incredibly strong and many of them are already positioned in the starting blocks waiting for the green light to launch themselves in business, enterprise, politics and education. Some are already making an impact but only with the permission of their guardian, whether it be their father, uncle, husband, son or brother.
Saudi women I’ve met — behind closed doors, I might add — are bright, intelligent, educated and opinionated, and it is criminal that they are being silenced and airbrushed from public life. It was incredible listening to the younger ones explain to me that from the cradle to the grave they cannot move, travel or make any major decision in life without the permission of that all-important male guardian. This does not inspire anyone with much confidence given some of the crackpot decisions which have come out of the kingdom, but these are issues that Theresa May, like Thatcher, is not prepared to tackle.
Apparently Princess Reema, who last year became the first woman to be appointed to a government role in the capital Riyadh, is being wheeled out to meet the prime minister. She was made vice-president for women’s affairs in Saudi Arabia’s sports’ governing body. While I do not want to dismiss the achievements of the princess, in reality this is possibly the equivalent of the King of Saudi Arabia coming to Britain and meeting the captain of Sutton Coldfield’s badminton team. And I mean no disrespect to either Sutton Coldfield or badminton, splendid as both must be.
Theresa May’s trip to the Middle East fools nobody. She’s out there to sell deadly weapons at a time when Britain’s back is against the wall over Brexit. Her journey would have been more productive if she was talking about bringing peace to the Middle East, or even apologising for the damage and injustices done to the Palestinian people by Britain’s infamous Balfour Declaration, the centenary of which is in November.
Amnesty International has joined other human rights groups in urging May to suspend British arms sales until Saudi Arabia stops bombing civilian areas in neighbouring Yemen. That is about as likely as seeing a senior woman delegate at next year’s Arab League summit (for Saudi Arabia isn’t alone in keeping women in the political background).
Far from furthering women’s rights, like Thatcher before her this Conservative prime minister is having the reverse effect in the Arab world as well as back home. What sort of message does this “role model” send young Western girls as she bows, scrapes and sells weapons of mass destruction to a group of Arab men who won’t let their women do something as simple as drive a car or go to the corner shop unescorted?
“I hope that people see me as a woman leader and will see what women can achieve and how women can be in significant positions,” she told journalists audaciously before leaving Heathrow. Doesn’t she understand that a caged bird cannot fly, in spite of its feathers and wings? Selling arms won’t set Saudi women free, but refusing to sell them unless… Well, that could possibly do the trick.