Women of the ruling families of Arab Gulf states are well situated to lead or impede significant change for women in their societies. On the one hand, these women occupy a unique position of influence due to their close proximity to political power. This grants them unparalleled firsthand access to political discussions and opportunities to propose change. Nevertheless, transforming the status quo is a difficult task, as royal women are under the same political restrictions, if not more, as their fellow women citizens, since positions taken by royal women must always reflect monarchial, patriarchal expectations of them. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of roles adopted by these women are geared toward enforcing existing political power. However, a few royal women have managed to widen the boundaries imposed on those in their position and take up unprecedented roles that require skills and characteristics that are rarely possessed by privileged women. However, no matter what roles women in the ruling families embrace, recognition of the royal family as the patron of their leadership must always be emphasized.
Triggers of Change in Royal Women’s Roles
In the last few years, a new role for royal women has started to emerge – as proponents for women in their respective countries. Grassroots campaigns advocating for women’s rights have propelled more royal women to claim ownership of that role. Traditionally, royal women have utilized their political leverage to unblock women’s access to the male-dominated institutions of the state. As patrons of charity, culture, and philanthropic activities, royal women act as the ultimate guardians for disadvantaged citizens. The late Saudi Princess Sita bint Fahd Aldamer opened her court to citizens, much as did the wives of other royal governors in Saudi Arabia, and helped resolve many cases involving divorced and widowed women. Princess Adela bint Abdullah, the daughter of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has been the patron of initiatives to protect women from domestic violence – programs that were impossible to create through the regular state administrative and legal channels.
Failed by a system plagued with gender discrimination and patriarchal norms, women citizens seek the protection and support of royal women. But why doesn’t the widespread interaction of these royals with citizens and their grievances prompt a more systematic effort to create the change sought? Why not advocate for institutional reforms, rather than taking a case-by-case, remedial approach? For example, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud is famous for an initiative in which she annually gathers thousands of Saudi women to raise awareness for breast cancer, skirting the ban on public assembly. This initiative would gain credibility and be more productive were more practical measures taken, such as routinely screening women for breast cancer in Saudi health care facilities. In using their exclusive authority to ease the impact of discriminatory laws and practices on women, the guardian role of royal women (and men) is reinforced in the minds of citizens. Furthermore, political responsibility for the failure to provide effective policies and services for women can be shifted to other sources: the mosque, or traditional social norms.
The guardian role of royal women in their society is also complemented by their role as cultural patrons. In resolving societal grievances and promoting cultural preservation, royal women are able to act as gatekeepers, choosing who and what to promote and support in accordance with the state’s changing political identity. Sheikha Mai al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s Minister of Culture, published an interesting list of biographies written on the men of her family. Portrayed on an official Qatari website as “shaping Qatar’s creative future,” Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani has been tasked with acquiring global treasures to be showcased in state of the art museums, part of the attempt to transform Qatar into an international cultural hub. Along the same lines, Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s under-secretary of the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs, is portrayed as advocating agility in pursuit of an ecosystem to develop entrepreneurial youth. She also helped to produce a documentary in cooperation with the Saudi authorities, “Journey to Mecca,” which showcases the peaceful nature of Islam by tracking the historical journey of the Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta from Morocco to Mecca. Through such efforts, the tribal and narrow Islamic identity of the Gulf Cooperation Council states is being slowly rebranded by youthful and educated royal figures into one that is more tolerant and contemporary.
The incorporation of Western-educated and energetic royal women in leadership positions serves the important goal of promoting the century-old monarchies as progressive and compatible with global values. This is particularly significant due to the growing need to attract investment to diversify Gulf oil-based economies as well as the need to respond to accusations that the GCC states are exporting extreme religious ideology. The timing of the media appearances by royal women, shortly after the emergence of social media campaigns by women activists, is telling.
Top media outlets have featured these royals as pioneers of women’s empowerment in their respective countries. For instance, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour praised Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, the wife of Saudi prince and billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, for supporting women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, despite that the princess has not advocated, at least publicly, for such rights within the kingdom. Rather, her social media accounts focus on her many international activities and philanthropic trips. Similarly, Princess Reema was hailed as “opening doors for women in Saudi Arabia,” after employing women in her high-end enterprise in Riyadh, in response to a royal decree to feminize the women’s retail sector. In her interviews, the princess denied the existence of restrictions on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She went so far as to compare her own socioeconomic status to that of other Saudi women, claiming she is able to have employees, access recreational activities, and live a dynamic life. The princess further denied that driving is an issue to women in Saudi Arabia while she sits on the advisory board of Uber, the ridesharing company, and helped usher in the recent investment of $3.5 billion in the company by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. The company, and therefore the PIF, benefit from the driving ban as 80 percent of the company’s clients in Saudi Arabia are women. Likewise, in international media, Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal announced that if she could change one thing in her own country, it would be to allow women to drive. However, she did not advocate or support women’s campaigns inside Saudi Arabia. So, while internally royal women may be far more comfortable maintaining the status quo, international media showcases them as forces of positive change who are fighting misogynistic cultures, again shifting the blame for any lack of progress to other factors beyond their control.
Transformation from Within
Modern state transformation has been a successful endeavor for certain royal women. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser has been at the forefront of Qatar’s urban development within the last two decades. She has served as chairperson of numerous foundations and international organizations concerned with education, employment, and good governance. However, it is her unprecedented political profile among first women of the ruling families in the Arab Gulf states that is unique. She has appeared alongside her husband in formal state visits and led on her own interstate official initiatives. She was photographed with King Abdullah in 2010 discussing political affairs in an exceptional appearance within the all-male political sphere, acting as a buffer to ease the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Her second son, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, ascended the throne after his father abdicated, bypassing his many older brothers in line. It is possible that her background as the daughter of a political dissident, Nasser bin Abdullah al-Missned, has prompted her to assume an unprecedented leadership role. Her marriage to the crown prince was claimed to be part of a reconciliation arrangement in exchange for the family return to Qatar and granting her father exceptional privileges. It is often women, like Sheikha Moza, raised on the opposite side of royal privilege, who can master the political negotiation, mobilization, and compromises needed to soften the cemented status quo.
The appointment of a royal woman in a new and unprecedented position of authority hinges on an accommodating political environment first, regardless of her own capacity or how pressing the need is for change. Sheikha Maha Nasser al-Thani, the first woman judge to be appointed in Qatar, acknowledged former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, his wife, Sheikha Moza, and their son, current Emir Sheikh Tamim, as patrons who have supported women’s inclusion, including hers, in all fields. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi has successfully utilized political support for her appointment in Tejari, a United Arab Emirates-based company that facilitates e-procurement, and in various capacities within the UAE government to promote and foster more women entrepreneurs.
However, the appointment of royal women to various offices has not drastically lessened the systematic exclusion of women from political or economic participation in the Arab Gulf states. Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman were ranked as 117, 119, 122, 123, 134, and 135 respectively out of 145 countries in the 2015 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. Women’s economic and political participation as well as their personal and family rights have lagged behind those of men and caused a persistently lower ranking in the global gender gap indicators since 2006. In short, the role of and expectations on royal women remain dependent on the political system regardless of their positions of influence. And with a few exceptions, such as those noted, they are most influential in promoting a progressive image of the state abroad, while maintaining the patriarchal status quo – and the royal privileges that come with it – at home.