Revolutionary step to give women a say in Saudi politics

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Job can only have come from the Middle East. Perhaps he hailed from the land we now call Saudi Arabia, because here patience is the greatest virtue.

Internet searches warned of a three to four hour wait at immigration at Riyadh airport.

Fortunately for us, our government minder from the Saudi Ministry of Information turned up and fetched us from the back of a queue that in ninety minutes had seen glacial progress.

Saudi Arabia is Britain’s mysterious ally – hard to get into and hard to know.

Our perceptions are hardly flattering, particularly when it comes to the treatment of women. But change is afoot.

Our rare invitation to visit Riyadh happened to coincide with an announcement by the King that thirty women would be joining the 150-seat Shura Council, an oversight and advisory body rather like our House of Lords.

Hoda al-Helaissi, a new Shura Council member
Hoda al-Helaissi, a new Shura Council member

Never before have women been allowed to have a say in the running of Saudi Arabia. It is a revolutionary step here.

One of the female appointees told me proudly that 20% female representation surpassed the 18% currently enjoyed by women in the US Congress.

Interaction with Saudi Arabia is important to us economically. And not just because of oil and business deals.

Sixty thousand Saudis attend UK universities. The average Saudi tourist to Britain spends something like 25 times what the average European visitor spends.

Unfortunately Britons can not get tourist visas to go to Saudi Arabia, because such things do not exist. The country has a rich heritage, including two World Heritage sites.

Visiting Muslims are the priority. Saudi has to accommodate around 12 million pilgrims to Mecca annually.

It is a pity more non-Muslims can not get in, because a surprisingly warm welcome awaits.

A row of tombs from the al-Khuraymat group, Mada'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia is comparable to the better known Petra Tombs in Jordan
A row of tombs from the al-Khuraymat group, Mada'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia is comparable to the better known Petra Tombs in Jordan

The people we met were friendly, courteous and helpful. And I am not just talking about the people we were meant to meet (remember the minister minder).

Everyone we had dealings with, from taxi drivers to shopkeepers to the proverbial man in the street, was kind and guileless.

Saudi Arabia is a place of contradictions. The religiously conservative component to society – and enormous wealth – has meant they have cherry-picked modernity.

Birds fly over Justice Square, Saudi Arabia
A young woman was publicly beheaded in Justice Square just over a week ago Credit: ITV News

There are the shopping malls with every Western brand you can imagine. But not far away there is also Justice Square, where last week a women was publicly executed by beheading.

The King’s office asked for leniency, but the family of the child killed by the women had the right to insist on the death penalty, and did so.

We got to chat with half a dozen language students – all young women with perfect English.

They could get jobs anywhere in the world, but choose to stay in Riyadh. When I asked them if they felt repressed, they all said no.

The Saudi women we spoke to cherished their society
The Saudi women we spoke to cherished their society

They all want more in the way of emancipation and believe it will come, but none is an Emily Pankhurst.

They cherish their society and do not want it convulsed by too much change too quickly.

During our five days in Riyadh we never got a flat refusal in response to any of our requests.

Everyone tried to accommodate us and we got more done than we thought. If some things did not come off it was because time-consuming bureaucracy got in the way.

My “take as you find” impression of Saudi Arabia was more positive than I expected it to be.