Royal visit casts light on women's sheltered existence in Saudi Arabia

The Duchess of Cornwall meets some of Saudi Arabia's first female MPs
The Duchess of Cornwall meets some of Saudi Arabia's first female MPs Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire

In Saudi Arabia, change for women is coming - but slowly. At the moment women can't drive and can't vote, but earlier this year the King appointed 30 women to join his previously all male parliament.

As one of the only two females in the Royal press pack, I was given a very rare opportunity to join the Duchess of Cornwall on a visit to what Saudi's claim is the largest women-only university campus in the world.

Read: Camilla meets Saudi Arabia's female politicians

The Duchess of Cornwall arrives at the university, moments after reporters were told they couldn't film on campus
The Duchess of Cornwall arrives at the university, moments after reporters were told they couldn't film on campus Credit: ITV News/Georgina Brewer

ITV News Royal Correspondent Tim Ewart reports:

The Princess Nora University is the kingdom's first university for women. The campus is spread over eight million square metres and is so vast it even has its own monorail to get the students to lectures.

The only men on this campus are those whose portraits adorn the grand entrance hall, among them the King who funds the university. Women don't pay to study here - instead they are paid.

The Duchess of Cornwall talks to some of the first women MP's to sit in the Shura parliament building in Riyadh
The Duchess of Cornwall talks to some of the first women MP's to sit in the Shura parliament building in Riyadh Credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Such is the sensitivity surrounding the issue of women's rights here in Saudi Arabia that in the convoy on the way to the university we were told that staff there had 'reconsidered' our filming access. We were told we were no longer able to film inside the university when any women were in shot - even when the women were covered in their traditional dress, known as the 'abaya'.

It was a theme you could not ignore throughout the visit. Camilla arrived at the university walking past the 'women's only zone' signs and leaving one of her male police protection officers standing outside. She was shown artwork by some of the students - one of the pictures depicting an image perhaps synonymous with Saudi Arabia - the eyes of a woman poking out from behind her abaya.

One of the pieces of artwork the Duchess of Cornwall was shown
One of the pieces of artwork the Duchess of Cornwall was shown Credit: ITV News/Georgina Brewer

On the monorail, she was given a tour of the campus by staff and students. One of the students she met was Saudi medical student Leena Hussein. She told me: "I wanted to talk to her ... Having her here today means we have communication between the woman here in the Middle East and women in other parts of the world."

I want to show [the Duchess of Cornwall] that Saudi women have the same abilities as other women.

– Leena Hussein, medical student
The Prince of Wales talks to members of parliament in the Shura parliament building
The Prince of Wales talks to members of parliament in the Shura parliament building Credit: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Keen to show that Saudi Arabia has a future, she spoke to the Duchess about the changes in society: "I want to show that Saudi women have the same abilities as other women,"' she told the Duchess.

When I asked about whether things are getting better for women she replied: "Yes, of course. There are lots of improvements I can see now. Lots of things. With both my eyes. I can see it.

For the time being, Saudi Arabia remains a place where jobs for women like Leena are scarce. Education doesn't necessarily lead to employment here and the nation has some of the worst unemployment rates among women in the world.

Here in the kingdom men dominate and you get the sense that it will be quite some time before the two sexes are truly equal.