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Tuesday, 13 March 2018

He is empowering Saudi Arabian women

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia came to Britain last week. He had some meetings and appeared in advertisements and billboards in London and in newspapers like the Guardian. The narrative was one of modernisation, of a new Saudi Arabia that connects very much to the presuppositions of the British public about what Saudi Arabia means. It's part of a long-running PR and soft-power campaign that dates back to well before the crown prince became the Crown Prince.

The image featured above was one of a series appearing in the Guardian last Wednesday 7th March. It focusses on the prince's directive making it legal for  women to drive in Saudi Arabia.

This linked up with other examples of PR representations. The BBC's Today programme had a Saudi woman talking about how she never felt any lack of freedom from the driving ban because she always had a driver to take her where she wanted to go. You can add narratives about 'informal power' and ignoring those women it doesn't work quite so well for when the informal power comes up against another informal power, or against discriminatory formal power.

The image above links in to the law allowing women to drive. It also links in to the law allowing tourism (including single women over the age of 25) to enter the country. It is classically designed for an overseas audience.

There's something of the cult of the individual in the ad despite the fact that the prince is smaller in the picture than the woman. He's got his perfect skin and his perfect beard and his  smirk and the idea that he's a pretty reasonable chap who's going to do right by Saudi women (up to a point). But it is a smirk, you can't get away from that, and he just doesn't look that nice a man, probably because he isn't.

She's bigger than him in the picture with a made up face, a few wisps of hair poking out and the flesh of her right arm exposed. So there's a message about who she is and where she stands on some things. She's quite well off (she'd have a driver for the years before when she wasn't allowed to drive) and she's  feisty. Look at that wry smile and those dimples. She's ready to play '...a greater role in Saudi society culture and the workplace' all granted by the smirking prince.

It's not exactly the world he's promising then. It's still the patriarchy, but a patriarchy led by, you guessed it, the Crown Prince. It's deliberately limited because this is the real world (that's the idea), you have to start small, it's the entire Saudi clergy he's battling, and let's face it who wouldn't take the Crown Prince against men who look back at the Dark Ages with a sense of nostalgic longing.

But some people are sceptical. The promise is limited even more by the fact that 'He' is empowering only 'Saudi women', not even women in Saudi Arabia, which is a different matter entirely, including women from other countries. But still, there's the idea that it's a start.

That's the idea anyway, but  if you ever bought into the idea of the open-minded liberal King-in-waiting the next day this advert popped up in the Guardian fund-raising for Save the Children's campaign in Yemen, a country that is being bombed to pieces by the loving Crown Prince's  not-so-loving expansionist side, as though the world really needs another expansionist wannabe-power broker.

That thought is summed up in this editorial from the Guardian. Which of course is the same newspaper which ran the ads in the first place.

And so the circle continues to turn...

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