A Virtuous Rivalry Between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Much of the Middle East’s current dysfunction and bloodshed can be attributed to rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen into smithereens to defeat Iran-backed Houthis, for example.

But another more peaceful kind of competition could benefit both societies and have wider implications for the Muslim world at large.

Long derided for its suffocating repression of public entertainment and tight restrictions on mixing of the sexes, Saudi Arabia is taking major steps to lighten up. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader, dreaded religious police have lost their authority to arrest those contravening strict Islamic laws regarding women’s dress and gender mixing in public. The government has promised to allow women to drive in June. In December, the Kingdom announced that it would begin licensing cinemas this year to show movies to the general public. It is also permitting public concerts.

These measures are not groundbreaking by Iranian standards. Indeed Iranians pride themselves on a women’s movement that goes back to the 19th century. As my good friend Haleh Esfandiari reminded me recently, Tehran University opened its doors to men and women at the same time in 1934 and classes at the university were not segregated. The veil was abolished in 1936 – although reinstated after the 1979 revolution. Women in Iran got the right to vote in the 1960s and run for office including parliament and local councils in increasing numbers. Women drive and live alone.

Iranians bristle at any comparison between their country, with its long history as an advanced civilization, and nouveau riche Arabs on the other side of the Persian Gulf.  Yet recent unrest in Iran over unemployment and wealth inequality resonated among Saudis suffering from similar hardships.

In both countries, popular opinion has supported modest government moves away from the enforcement of strict Islamic law on daily practices. While Iranian authorities might deny it, it does not seem coincidental that not long after the Saudis defanged their religious police, Tehran’s police chief announced that authorities would no longer arrest people for minor infractions of Islamic codes such as “bad” or incomplete hijab.

Meanwhile, days after the Greek performer and composer Yanni gave a jam-packed concert in Saudi Arabia, Tehran hosted the German band Schiller for the first concert by a Western pop group since 1979.

Speaking after major protests shook the country last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged, “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations… The problem is that we want two generations after us to live the way we like them to.”

Moves toward liberalization by the biggest Sunni power – Saudi Arabia – and the biggest Shi’ite one – Iran – could influence Muslims throughout the world. The challenge now for both governments is to do more to open opportunities for youth and women and to eliminate remaining discriminatory laws and practices that stifle  creativity and entrepreneurship.

While Iranian women have always been much freer than their Saudi counterparts, laws and customs regarding male “guardianship” and personal status constrain women in both countries.

Before the 1979 revolution, Iran had perhaps the most progressive family law in the region. Women could go to special courts to seek a divorce and gain child custody. The age of marriage was 18 and a husband needed the permission of a first wife to take a second. After the revolution, however, women lost many of these protections. The age of marriage was reduced to nine and only after a decade of grassroots struggle was raised to the current 13.

In general, it is much harder for women to divorce then men, more difficult to obtain custody of children and impossible to convey nationality to children born of a non-native father.

Women in both societies are better educated than their male counterparts, but woefully under-employed. This creates enormous personal frustrations and denies society the benefits of the contributions these women could make if allowed to fulfill their potential.

While Iranian women are increasingly active in politics, at top levels, women remain largely tokens. President Rouhani broke his promise to name women ministers after his re-election in May, fearful of a backlash from religious hardliners, and has resorted instead to naming women as vice presidents, who do not have to be confirmed by parliament and have less authority.

A woman was named last summer to head Iran Air, the country’s civilian passenger airline service, http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/82595029 and a record number of women won election in 2016 parliamentary elections. But there are no women on the Guardian Council, a clerical body that vets all candidates for elected office, or on the Assembly of Experts, which is supposed to supervise the country’s Supreme Leader – a man – and to pick the successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. No woman has been allowed to run for president either.

Saudi Arabia has no equivalent elections and is dominated by male members of the royal family. It once had a female minister (of education) although none under the current King Salman. In 2013, when King Abdullah still reigned, 30 women were appointed to a 130-member advisory council, whose powers are unclear. A woman was also recently named to chair the Riyadh stock exchange.

Saudi women have responded favorably to the steps their crown prince has taken so far while warning that the top-down, authoritarian nature of the changes means that they could easily be reversed if Mohammed bin Salman is removed or simply changes his mind.

Studies of human development show strong links between economic progress and women’s empowerment. It is encouraging to see more Saudi women start small businesses – a trend that will certainly be enhanced once they have the freedom to drive.

Speaking to women from both countries, one senses a great deal in common. Like women everywhere, they aspire to achieve outside the home while safeguarding their families and creating a peaceful, prosperous and secure environment. Natural bridge builders, they would likely make excellent ambassadors and negotiators if given the opportunity; they might even be able to help overcome the longstanding rivalry between their governments.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are investing resources they cannot afford in proxy wars that are tearing apart their region. It would be far better for them to channel this rivalry into a peaceful competition to unleash the potential of all their citizens.

Barbara Slavin is Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Police in Iran's capital say they will no longer arrest women for failing to observe the Islamic dress code imposed since the 1979 revolution. | Photo Credit: AP