By David Ignatius
A week ago, Saudi Arabia saw something that people in the kingdom often talk about but rarely witness – a potentially important political reform.
Saudi King Abdullah announced on Jan. 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a 150-person consultative body, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women in Riyadh, from where I’m writing.
When Abdullah first signaled his plan to name women to the council, a prominent Saudi preacher said it would be “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. The king went ahead and announced the 30 appointees, saying he had consulted the Senior Ulama Council, the religious body whose approval is one of the pillars of the Saudi monarchy.
I met here last week with Hayat Sindi, a scientist who is one of the newly appointed Shura members. She took her doctorate from Cambridge in 2001 in electromagnetic engineering, and in the years since has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, launched two companies and helped run a third.
“I feel the solution for the Middle East is based on women and youth,” she says. Listening to her story of insistent, determined accomplishment, it’s hard to disagree.
Sindi, dressed in an abaya whose somber black is enlivened by colorful, embroidered sleeves, balks when I ask her age, not for reasons of vanity but because she isn’t sure. Her father was not an educated man, and there’s no reliable record of her birthdate.
From this humble beginning in Mecca, Sindi grew to become a prodigious student. She remembers reading a book in her early teens about the discovery of DNA by British scientists, and dreaming that she would study in Britain someday. She did just that after college, against her father’s initial wishes and despite the fact she knew little English – earning a master’s degree at King’s College, London, and then her doctorate at Cambridge.
In her last year at Cambridge, she ran out of money and feared she would have to drop out. Abdullah, then crown prince, was known to support women’s education, so she wrote him and asked for help. He called personally and asked her how much she needed to finish her studies.
Abdullah intervened again a year later: When Sindi finished her thesis, she said she went to the Saudi Embassy in London to register its title. The Saudi clerk said it was impossible – illegal – because Saudi women weren’t allowed to study engineering. She demanded that he call Abdullah’s palace in Riyadh, which prompted a royal edict that women could study whatever scientific topic they liked.
The rest of Sindi’s resume is equally improbable, and dazzling. She formed a firm to develop a new diagnostic tool for early-stage breast cancer. She joined the board of Diagnostics for All, which creates low-cost diagnostic devices for developing countries. And last November she started a Saudi entrepreneurship lab called the i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity. She plans to award fellowships annually to a dozen would-be Saudi entrepreneurs, men and women.
What difference will Sindi make on the Shura Council? She says she wants to encourage peer-reviewed science, and entrepreneurship, but she understands that part of her role will be to expand Saudis’ expectations of what women can accomplish.
Waiting for political reform in Saudi Arabia is like watching the grass grow. It often seems as if nothing is happening. But during the past two years of Arab revolution, it has seemed possible that Saudi Arabia might be the next autocratic nation to face popular revolt. As Karen Elliott House asks in “On Saudi Arabia,” her carefully reported new book: “Can the Al Saud regime reform in time to save itself?”
Thirty new members of an appointive advisory council aren’t going to rescue the monarchy. But the Shura appointments suggest that Abdullah, who at 88 may have limited time left on the throne, wants to set in motion a framework for transition to a more modern nation. Another recent move was Abdullah’s selection of 53-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Saudi head of counterterrorism, as interior minister – making him the first member of his generation in a top leadership position.
The wheels of change move slowly in the kingdom. They do seem to be turning, but is it fast enough?
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 21, 2013, on page 7.