Women's Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and U.S.-Saudi Relations

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2014 28 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Public International Law and Human Rights


Table of Contents



Literature Review






Future Research

Appendix A

Appendix B


The United States imports one million barrels of Saudi Arabian oil per day. At the same time, women in that nation lack basic rights such as the right to operate motor vehicles, leave home without a male relative serving as escort, access to quality education, freedom from abuse, among others. The current research aims to examine the United States relationship with Saudi Arabia, the American people's awareness of US-Saudi relations, and Americans' awareness of social conditions for women in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia operates under Sharia Law, which is based on the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad. These have been interpreted by authorities in the Kingdom to mean that women lack the capacity to make crucial decisions, operate motor vehicles, and hold the same jobs as men. Lawmakers have also interpreted the texts to disallow women to be seen in public except when they wear an abaya, a long black cloak that covers all but their eyes. Women must also have a related male escort every time they leave the home in order to avoid corruption. Domestic abuse is a cultural phenomenon that continues despite efforts by the government to end it, and the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud on January 22, 2015, who made modest gains in the advancement of women in the nation, makes the situation more volatile. Workplaces and schools are gender-segregated in the Kingdom, with women who are allowed to work usually in nursing, teaching, or government positions.


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has faced criticism from the world community for perceived human rights violations. At the same time, the United States imports one million barrels of oil from the Kingdom every day, and provides protective and military services there. The current research focuses on conditions for women in Saudi Arabia as well as the importance of a working economic relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia and American public opinion on the topic. Literature was collected to explore the topic of human rights- what they are and when people really have them. Research was also studied about the circumstances that women in Saudi Arabia are subjected to daily and the effects that these circumstances have on women's social capital and ability to flourish, especially in regard to education. A third factor considered when the literature was chosen was US-Saudi relations, with an emphasis on how much is at stake in the relationship, and how US interaction with Saudi Arabia might benefit those who traditionally suffer in the current conditions of the Kingdom. It was found that human rights may best be measured by their enjoyment, not through the traditional measurement of enacted laws and policies. Studies conducted in Saudi Arabia show that women in that nation do not enjoy basic human rights as defined by the United Nations, as well as by the traditional American value system. The studies reviewed also reveal that the US cutting ties with Saudi Arabia will be a difficult task at best, and may even be detrimental to the well-being of that nation's marginalized groups. Further study is needed to determine if American public opinion points to a desire for the US to separate itself from Saudi Arabia due to differing policies regarding human rights. The current research aimed to gauge American public opinion on US-Saudi relations to determine if there exists the desire to cut ties with Saudi Arabia on human rights grounds.

Literature Review

Defining Human Rights

In order to determine if one's human rights are being violated, it must be determined what human rights are and when they are truly present. Traditionally, human rights have been measured simply by the presence of legislation that guarantees these rights, such as freedom from discrimination, freedom from torture, etc. Ackerly and Cruz (2011) formed a different approach to defining the presence of human rights. Relying on the Latin American Public Opinion Project survey database, they took a structural view: human rights through the lens of enabling social conditions that allow for human rights enjoyment. This means looking at individuals' unique definitions of what rights are relevant to them, whether they are able to enjoy these rights in community with others in their culture, and if they are able to enjoy their rights in an integrated way. This measures an individual's rights enjoyment on the whole, instead of focusing on one specific right at a time. The study found that the enjoyment of human rights is more closely related to political and social attitudes and behaviors than to variables relating to torture or repression.

Perceived Rights of Women in Saudi Arabia

Using Ackerly and Cruz's (2011) definition of human rights enjoyment as what an individual considers to be their rights and how freely they are able to enjoy them, it makes sense to attempt to determine exactly what the women of Saudi Arabia consider to be their human rights. Al-Khateeb (1998) studied working Muslim women's perceptions of equality in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and found some startling results: 79.3% of the women interviewed did not support equality in the home. There were several reasons for this. One, the biological factors separating men and women lead women to believe in traditional roles: men as breadwinners, women as caregivers. In fact, many of the women Al-Khateeb interviewed expressed that they would not be able to respect a man that did jobs that were traditionally women's work: cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children. A second factor that Saudi Arabian women claimed as the reason they did not support equal rights at home was religion. Islam, and the Islamic Sharia law that is based on the religion, puts men in a superior position in all facets of life. Women are not allowed to drive cars, walk in public without a male guardian, show their faces in public, or leave the country without a male relative's permission. The Saudi women interviewed were not willing to decry this traditional system, seeing it as Allah's will. Third, the women considered equal rights a Western principle, and thus a threat. Equality at home was seen as a threat to religious and moral values.

Women were more likely to support equality in the workplace, however. Sixty percent of those interviewed thought that equality was more possible at their jobs. This was likely due to the gender segregation in workplaces in Saudi Arabia; with no men physically present, women felt they could be paid the same wages for the same work as men. There was also a positive relationship found between education and support for equality: those who only had a high school education favored equality at 14.3%, while those who had a M.A stood at 72.7%. (Al-Khateeb, 1998)

At first look, it would appear that the measurement put forth by Ackerly et al would show that Saudi Arabian women do not consider equality to be their human right, and therefore the lack of it would not affect their rights enjoyment. However, the support by educated women could mean that the lack of support for equality has to do with a lack of proper education for women in the Kingdom.

Gender-Segregated Education

Women and girls in Saudi Arabia are not given the same educational opportunities as their male counterparts. Baki (2004) studied the effects of this and found that this segregation led to decreased opportunities in education and employment. The inability of women to drive meant that they often could not travel to a university campus to study. Even if they could find a male guardian to transport them to school, their curricula differed from that of men, with women pushed into traditional women's work: nursing, teaching, and government work, for the most part. So, while 58% of graduates in Saudi Arabia were women, they were unable to find jobs due to social and political factors in the nation. Conditions in Saudi Arabia sharply reduced women's education.

When preparing to enter university, women show signs of increased stress, which can lead to health problems. In their study, Al-Daghri, Al-Othman, Al-Attas, Alkharfy, Alokail, Albanyan, and Chrousos (2014) studied 1878 Preparatory Year students at King Saud University, Riyadh. The students were given a perceived stress test, and a health evaluation. They found that women with high perceived stress had a much higher cholesterol level than the control group. This difference was not observed in the men who took part in the study. (Al-Daghri et al, 2014)

It is difficult for a group to switch from marginalized to included in society. The women of Saudi Arabia are often fully aware that their lack of education would make new rights dangerous. This is why, in 2009, a group of Saudi women launched a movement dubbed, “My Guardian Knows What's Best For Me” to counter activist demands for desegregation. (Nafjan, 2011) Many women in Saudi Arabia feel that if they were suddenly granted the right to travel freely and conduct everyday business, they would lack the basic education to manage such tasks and, thus, fail.

Lack of education may be the reason why so many Saudi women do not support equality. It also may have an effect on other aspects of women's lives. Several studies were examined, described in the following sections, that focused on the various problems that women face in Saudi Arabia and their causes, with education a common indicator.

Substance abuse and poverty for women in Saudi Arabia

Algamdi and Ibrahim (2013) studied the files of forty women who had been treated at the Al-Amal Complex, a drug treatment center in Dammam City, Saudi Arabia. Several factors played into the women's drug habits. Half of the women were introduced to drugs by their husbands. There was also a correlation between child and domestic abuse, and drug addiction later in life. Remarkably, 90% of the women in the drug facility had a low level of education, with 42.5% halting education at preparatory school.

The Algamdi et al study suggests that a low level of education is a risk factor for drug abuse by women in Saudi Arabia. Larger research is necessary to back these findings, although research on this topic has been done in other nations with the same results, such as China (Yin et al, 2015), the United States (Sias et al, 2006), Australia (Maloney et al, 2011), and Nepal (Niraula et al, 2009).

Poverty is another issue that research suggests is related to low education. Fadaak (2010) studied the support systems available to widowed and divorced female heads of households (FHHs) in Jeddah City, Saudi Arabia, and found that 73% of poor FHHs were illiterate or had very little education. The majority were also unemployed. The research also pointed to other failings in the Saudi Arabian system of support for these women. The annual compensation for poor FHHs receiving social security benefits stood at SR 9,400, or $2,506. In order to receive these benefits, women were required to prove in court their various reasons for applying for aid; if they had been abandoned by the husband, this must be documented and approved by a male relative or the mayor. Adult male children were not eligible for social security or charitable aid, as they were considered to be providers, even if they were not. It is difficult for women in Saudi society to procure the necessary proofs, and that may be why out of 9,421 poor FHHs, only 5,688 received social security benefits.

Economic Factors and Questionable Progress

Alsuwaigh (1989) studied socioeconomic changes in Saudi Arabia and their impact on the status of women. That study found that the urbanization of the region-- more families living in nuclear family-only households-- and increased educational opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia had little impact on the traditional roles of men and women. Observing two generations of women, the study did suggest improvements in the lives of women. There were fewer arranged marriages: 94% in the older generation, and 45% in the younger. The younger generation was more literate as well: 81% of the older generation studied was illiterate, while 45% of the younger generation had a secondary education. The study collected data on 62 women in Dammam, and found that despite these improvements, social norms act as a preventative force in the advancement of women in the nation. Unemployment is high for women because the government only procures 18% of the amount of educational funding that men receive for women. Women are still segregated into traditional jobs. This relates to the Baki, Algumdi, and Fadaak studies and the effects of social conditions on women's education and ability to advance.

A more recent study by Al-Khteeb and Sultan (2014) supports Alsuwaigh's work. This study examined the role of women in economic development in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia, and found that most of women's contributions to economic development in the region do not involve work, but increased saving in the home, and the creation and nurturing of human capital. Further, the study found that unemployment for women had increased from 16% in 1999 to 36% in 2012. The obstacles to women's advancement in the workplace were defined as obligations to the family and home, and cultural/legal factors such as gender segregation and women's inability to drive or move freely.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence became illegal in Saudi Arabia in 2013. Almosaed (2004) surveyed 230 men and women in Jeddah about their views on domestic violence against women. Sixty-five percent of the sample had experienced abuse, and 86% who had had experienced it as children. Thirty percent of the men surveyed were violent toward women in their lives- wives, children, and other family members. Of these men who abused their female family members, 53% thought the abuse was necessary, 17.5% felt guilty for administering the abuse and another 17.5% thought that it had been the wrong thing to do. The justifications for administering the abuse were misbehavior of the female relative (32%), answering back by the female relative (29%), and family disagreement (17%).

Interestingly, the trend in opinions on domestic violence as related to the education level of the participants was that more educated individuals were more likely to support domestic violence. Those with lower levels of education were more likely to view domestic violence as unnecessary aggression. This refutes the findings of the previously discussed research, which suggested that higher education would lead women to seek more equality and human rights in Saudi Arabia. A small, ungeneralizable sample in Almosaed's research may have caused this disparity, but the findings nevertheless call into question the role of education in human rights awareness and seeking. Still, at the time of the survey, 40% of respondents expressed a desire for the state to pass laws banning domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a taboo topic in Saudi Arabia, and it can be difficult to collect data. Bohlaiga, Al-Kakhli, Al-Mattar, Al-Bahrani, and Al-Lowaim (2014) studied the rate of domestic violence in Al-Dammam and Al-Ahsa cities and the related risks. Three hundred forty-eight married women were surveyed. They found that while only 19% of the women answered immediately that they were abused, abuse-cognate questions in the survey brought the number up to 33.1%. Forty-nine percent of the women abused were abused in more than one way (physical, emotional, psychological, etc.) Only 7% of the women abused had contacted the authorities. Women's and men's unwillingness to admit to abuse most likely skew research results throughout the field, and the instances of domestic violence may be much higher than currently thought.

US-Saudi Relations

The United States imports one million barrels of Saudi Arabian oil per day. The US also provides protective services for Saudi Arabian interests and sells the country military weaponry and crafts. In his study, Bahgat (2001) looked at the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia throughout the history of their time of cooperation, including numerical data of barrels imported and assistance provided, and concluded that the US and Saudi Arabia were inexorably linked by a complex system of interests. Not only were they linked, but, according to Bahgat, the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is what kept the global economy, energy market, and world prosperity stable. This is despite the fact that US imports of Saudi oil fell from 1990 to 2000. In 1990, 18.69% of US oil imports originated in Saudi Arabia. In 2000, that number had fallen to 13.66%. Bahgat does point out that Saudi Arabia is a reliable source of oil in an otherwise volatile area of the world.

Clearly, the US has strong incentive to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia, regardless of human rights violations. Greenhill (2010) studied this phenomenon in his research on Intergovernmental Organization (IGO) membership and human rights. The US and Saudi Arabia belong to several IGOs together, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. Greenhill identified two ways of viewing IGO membership and its relationship to human rights. First, Greenhill described a compliance effect in IGOs that involves two variables. The first variable is whether a nation deciding to join an IGO would receive benefits that would outweigh the costs of implementing new human rights improvements in their nation. The second involves the nations that are already members of the IGO: would they be willing to pay the price of losing the benefits of cooperation with a prospective member in order to uphold a human rights principle? Herein lies the question of the current research. It must be determined if the monetary and strategic benefits of a relationship with Saudi Arabia outweigh the moral costs of supporting a nation with internationally-recognized failures in human rights protections.



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Title: Women's Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and U.S.-Saudi Relations