Fight for Women's RightsWomen’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been a symbol of the fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for the last several years. Al-Hathloul has been making moves to actively challenge aspects of the Saudi system and spark change in hopes of disrupting government narratives and dismantling gender discrimination.

Al-Hathloul’s History with Women’s Rights

Al-Hathloul has made her presence as a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist known on more than one occasion with a series of bold actions opposing the Saudi government’s stances on certain issues. For example, al-Hathloul openly expressed her opinion on the nation’s driving ban for women in 2013. Shortly after, her father took a video of her while she was driving in Saudi Arabia that went viral. Al-Hathloul was arrested and held for more than 70 days as she tried to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia while driving.

She also shaped a campaign against the male guardianship system, which she believes consistently limits the rights of women. Al-Hathloul was among 14,000 signers on a petition to abolish the male guardianship system and was also one of the first women to stand for municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. In March 2018, al-Hathloul and more than 10 other women’s rights activists were arrested for their efforts to oppose the Saudi government. The group faced imprisonment and the media denounced the women. About a month after al-Hathloul’s arrest, the Saudi government lifted the driving ban. However, she faced a sentence of nearly six years in prison under multiple charges.

Her Family’s Plea and Her Ordeal

Notably charged under “Saudi counter-terrorism law,” Al-Hathloul attempted to appeal her initial guilty verdict. Al-Hathloul’s sister Lina has consistently advocated for Al-Hathloul’s case. Lina informed the public, together with several supportive organizations, of the torture, sexual assault and solitary confinement al-Hathloul underwent in prison. The Saudi authorities have rejected accusations of torture or wrongdoing. Al-Hathloul even went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions she and the other reformers were subject to because she did not want to endure such conditions anymore.

Lina has pleaded to the international community for support. Organizations call for reform in Saudi Arabia and for the involvement of Saudi Arabia’s allies. The Saudi government’s connections to the international community could lead to reform. Lina has called for the release of the reformers and has said, “I have no choice but to speak out and use my voice because my sister cannot. Our silence will not keep them safe.”

Where the Situation Stands

After approximately three years imprisoned, Saudi Arabia released al-Hathloul with limitations. Due to the kingdom’s human rights records, President Biden’s administration took stances that reflected a reconsideration of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Al-Hathloul’s release has been perceived as a strategic diplomatic action by the Saudi government to relieve international pressures to improve conditions for women.

Today, improvements like the driving ban’s fall speak to the impact of al-Hathloul and other women like her. Though the situation remains challenging for al-Hathloul and her family, renewed international support gives hope for the future. As the fight for women’s rights continues, Saudi Arabia stands as a critical example of slow but deliberate change led by women.

Annamarie Perez
Photo: Flickr

Improvements in Tourism in Saudi ArabiaIn recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made tourism a priority because of Vision 2030. Vision 2030 is a strategy created by the Saudi Arabian government to improve the country in several different areas, tourism being one of them. Increased tourism has expanded the economy and is also improving the lives of the citizens. With tourism comes more forms of entertainment that benefit Saudi Arabians and attracts visitors from other countries.

How has tourism helped the economy?

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) states that in 2019, travel and tourism comprised 9.8% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the tourism industry hard. In 2020, that percentage went down to 7.1%. Even with the decrease in tourism because of the pandemic, tourism in Saudi Arabia is still performing relatively well. For instance, the tourism industry provided 12.2% of employment in Saudi Arabia as of 2019; that figure went down to 11% in 2020.

How has entertainment improved in Saudi Arabia?

Additionally, one of Vision 2030’s goals is to create more entertainment for Saudi people. Entertainment and tourism go hand in hand. One of the biggest developments is that Saudi Arabia had a cinema open recently. A cinema opening in Saudi Arabia is notable. For the last several decades, there have been no cinemas in the country. Now, more than 30 new ones have opened.

More so, there has been an increase in entertainment venues in general. From 154 in 2017 to 277 in 2020, these venues vary from cinemas to amusement parks. The Saudi Arabia government is determined to have a successful entertainment market. By 2030, estimates say the entertainment sector will be worth $1170.72 million. As of 2020, the market is worth $23.77 million. Tourism in Saudi Arabia will benefit from these changes because visitors will now have more options for entertainment when they visit.

What is the Saudi Arabian government doing to meet these goals?

Vision 2030 is where the improvements for entertainment stem from. One of the categories for Vision 2030 is a “vibrant society,” which connects to improving the daily lives of Saudis while preserving cultural values. The Saudi government has implemented the General Authority for Entertainment (GAE), which directly supports the funding to improve the entertainment sector. A tourism e-visa that costs $173 is also available, opening the legal pathway for people to enter the country.

What is next for tourism in Saudi Arabia?

The pandemic has slowed down progress for tourism and entertainment to flourish in Saudi Arabia, seeing as unnecessary visits into the country have halted. The revenue from the entertainment sector is suffering, as is employment for people who work in the industry. However, Saudi Arabia has a solid infrastructure now to uphold its entertainment industry; it is a priority for the nation. Saudi Arabia is determined to reach its goals for Vision 2030 and get back on track for when the pandemic is finally over.

– Shelby Tomassini
Photo: Flickr

Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty in Saudi Arabia
The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Saudi Arabia is undeniable, especially when considering the growing unemployment rate. During the non-pandemic years, around 10%-20% of Saudi Arabians were in poverty and many of that number were women. However, Saudi Arabia’s government has not released specifics regarding poverty or homelessness.

COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia led to 8,591 deaths and 539,698 cases as of August 18, 2021. Additionally, the government administered approximately 32.8 million doses of the vaccine to Saudi Arabians. Saudi Arabia has a strict mask policy, requiring all people to wear a mask in all public places. Otherwise, unmasked individuals will receive a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals, which is almost $3,000.

Unemployment and Poverty in Saudi Arabia

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Saudi Arabia certainly begins with unemployment. The unemployment rate rose from 6.13% in 2019 to 8.22% in 2020 because of COVID-19. Most people in Saudi Arabia work in the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, the reduction of oil prices due to the pandemic caused the country’s economy to suffer and have significant layoffs. At the end of 2020, the unemployment rate in the gas and oil sector was 12.6%. However, it decreased to 11.7% at the beginning of 2021. The increase in layoffs made the job market more competitive. Unemployed men and women with no prior job experience must compete for jobs with people who have more work experience.

Furthermore, the pandemic severely affected women in the job market. Women are struggling because their main career areas are private-sector jobs such as retail and education. These types of jobs are core areas where the pandemic stay-at-home policies caused quite a shift. Additionally, half of the young Saudi women do not have employment and do not have education or formal training. COVID-19 is slowing the process for Saudi women to join the workforce. Closing schools and daycare made it difficult for women to work because someone needs to stay home with their children.

What is Saudi Arabia Doing to Help?

In 2016, the Saudi Arabian government created Vision 2030, a strategy to improve many aspects of the country by 2030. Tourism and women’s rights are examples of Vision 2030’s goals. However, the larger aim is to improve the overall life of people in Saudi Arabia. Concerning women and jobs, the goal is to encourage women to go to college and develop their talents. Saudi Arabia is making efforts for women to have more job security and improve their quality of life. In fact, from 2017 to 2020, the percentage of women in the workforce increased from 20% to 33%. Women having more job security and opportunities will make challenging events such as COVID-19 more manageable in the future.

According to the Vision 2030 plan, Saudia Arabia will address poverty. The plan also stated that “subsidies for fuel, food, water and electricity will be better utilized by redirecting them towards those in need.” The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Saudi Arabia slowed down the progress of Vision 2030, but the strategy is still flourishing. Vision 2030 is important because it is building a stronger infrastructure for Saudi Arabia, especially for the poor and women.

– Shelby Tomassini
Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Saudi Arabia
In April 2021, a young migrant worker named Caroline Aluoch requested permission to return to her home in Kenya. However, her employer denied her due to his rights under the kafala system. A few months later, Aluoch’s family received a report that she had died during her employment sponsorship. Devastated by their loss, Aluoch’s family recently spoke out about how the kafala system renders migrant laborers particularly vulnerable to human trafficking in Saudi Arabia. Here is some information about the problem as well as efforts working towards ending human trafficking in Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Labor in Saudi Arabia

Workers from low and middle-income countries often seek better wages by taking on foreign jobs. The migrant laborer population in Saudi Arabia is around 13 million people. It consists of people from South and Southeast Asia and Africa working at jobs in construction, agriculture and domestic service.

Most of these workers enter the country through legal labor channels. These workers must adhere to certain restrictions under the employment sponsorship system. This system, known as kafala, began in the 1950s to promote labor sharing in the Gulf Nations. Without reform, though, restrictions through kafala can force laborers to remain in potentially unsafe and exploitative work environments.

Problems with Kafala

The kafala sponsorship system requires foreign workers to obtain a Saudi sponsor in order to work. The sponsor, who is most often the Saudi employer, has the right to decide if and when a foreign worker can transfer jobs or leave Saudi Arabia. According to the 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIPS) report, one of the most common complaints from exploited migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is that of non- or delayed wage payment. Under the kafala system, workers can become trapped in the unpaid situation.

When laborers face delayed and non-payments, they become more susceptible to economic coercion into other exploitative employment, such as organized begging or commercial sex. As an employment requirement, the kafala system creates a cycle of potential exploitation for foreign workers.

Saudi Government Efforts

In the past few years, officials have developed a legal infrastructure suited to dealing specifically with human trafficking in Saudi Arabia. These specialized courts and screenings intend to protect domestic and foreign trafficked victims and prevent future trafficking. Here are some of the Saudi government’s efforts so far:

  • Law enforcement investigated, prosecuted and convicted human traffickers.
  • Workshops and seminars instructed recruitment agencies on how to teach foreign workers about their rights.
  • The new National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is giving identified trafficking victims the choice of staying in Saudi Arabia and transferring jobs or returning home.
  • The Expansion of the Wage Protection System allows the government to monitor delayed or non-paid wages.

Saudi Arabia and many of its labor-sending countries agree that government oversight of labor has improved, which has benefitted domestic and foreign workers.

Reform to Kafala System

While the Kingdom has made great strides to create safeguards and systems to protect potential trafficking victims, stories like Caroline Aluoch’s demonstrate the current dangers of the kafala system. Sponsorship reform is one of the prioritized recommendations for ending human trafficking in Saudi Arabia, according to the TIPS Report.

Because the kafala system is a decades-old, multinational system, progress has been slow. As global labor organizations have pushed for reform of the sponsorship system, some Gulf Nations have altered the employee restrictions within specific countries. In 2021, Saudi Arabia enacted plans to reduce employee restrictions and protect migrant laborers.

Two big changes to the Saudi implementation of the kafala system seem extremely promising; first, laborers will be allowed to leave the Kingdom without explicit permission from their employers. Second, workers will be able to transfer jobs without their employers’ permission once an employment contract ends. These changes should protect workers like Caroline Aluoch, who wanted to return home when she deemed her work environment too dangerous. Reform to the kafala system is a crucial step towards ending human trafficking in Saudi Arabia.

Hayley Welch
Photo: Flickr

Mental Health in Saudi Arabia
Mental health in Saudi Arabia is an urgent concern for the Kingdom’s government. Nearly one-fifth of those seeking healthcare assistance show signs of mental health challenges. In some areas, almost half of the population is in need of mental healthcare services. The government recognizes its shortcomings and is taking steps to reduce such numbers and serve the needs of its citizens.

Reducing Stigma

The stigmatization of mental health in Saudi Arabia is slowly decreasing. In past years, many Saudi Arabians have been ashamed to seek mental health treatment. Many frowned upon therapy as they considered mental illness a sign of weakness.

In a 2016 study to measure the rate of depression in the country, 14.3% of prospective participants declined for the reason that the survey was about mental health. When seeking therapy sessions, many patients were afraid to show their faces. These sentiments have left mental health conditions untreated, leading to economic challenges and causing individuals to fall into poverty.

In the past few years, the younger generation has stepped up and taken a stand in favor of mental healthcare. The attitude towards mental health is changing due to a variety of factors including upbringing and the awareness that is spreading throughout the nation. Both the Internet and contact with patients who suffer from mental conditions serve to increase awareness and confidence towards mental health. Now, when attending therapy sessions, many young Saudi Arabians are unafraid to show their identity.

Improving Mental Healthcare Services

The government began improving mental healthcare services in 1983. In an effort to address the country’s mental health crisis, the Saudi Arabian government created the General Department for Mental and Social Health (GDMSH) in 1983. The Department has the task of improving access to and the quality of mental healthcare throughout the nation.

Primary healthcare centers (PHCs) became available with the purpose of opening up these services to Saudi Arabian citizens. Additionally, GDMSH uses the First National Strategic Plan to modernize psychiatric facilities and provide well-trained staff for mental healthcare institutions. Maintaining the privacy of individuals who seek therapy became an issue left for the GDMSH to resolve. In response, the GDMSH has been working to protect the rights of each patient in the mental healthcare system.

Mental Health Law

In 2014, Saudi Arabia established a mental health law. The government sought out assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO) to compile data on the state of mental health services in the country. Saudi Arabia converted its findings into legislation with the passing of the Mental Health Law.

The law incorporates many parts of WHO’s United Nations Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care. It provides a clear definition of mental health and emphasizes the need to seek voluntary mental healthcare rather than involuntary. It outlines special cases when involuntary healthcare may become used.

The law also adheres to the Saudi Arabian custom of involving family in all healthcare matters. Patients and their relatives receive information on how their rights will undergo maintenance throughout the treatment process. Should the treatment breach patients’ rights, they will have the entitlement to bring their case to court with a lawyer to represent them. The law remains dedicated to maintaining security throughout the treatment process.

Moving Forward

Saudi Arabia has made great steps towards improving its mental healthcare. Today, the nation has a 55% ratio of psychiatric nurses to overall mental healthcare professionals, which is 37% higher than that of most developed countries.

Additionally, through the GDMSH’s efforts to improve the quality of mental healthcare, the country has a ratio of 18.4 beds to 100,000 citizens. The amount of beds is greater than the number of therapy appointments, which is a goal that many developed countries hope to achieve. The nation has more progress to make in its mental health journey, but Saudi Arabia is on the right track.

Mariam Kazmi
Photo: Flickr

Human trafficking in Saudi ArabiaThe nation of Saudi Arabia is working to address a modernized form of human trafficking — apps that allow for the quick purchase of a domestic worker. According to the United States Department of State, during the 2019 reporting period, Saudi Arabia investigated 79 human trafficking cases and prosecuted 42. While this represented a significant decrease from the previous year, it still demonstrates the large scope of forced labor operations and human trafficking in Saudi Arabia.

The Transaction of Human Trafficking

The digital world has changed the transaction process of many dealings. Unfortunately, this is also the case for human trafficking. Following the investigation of an undercover BBC News Arabic team, it is understood that modern slavery has moved to the online black market. Now, a buyer can purchase a domestic worker by downloading an app, such as Haraja or 4sale, and picking from a catalog of domestic laborers, ranging from maids to construction workers. Each person has a short description attached with comments on their character and work ethic. The apps also allow users to filter findings based on race. In one instance, a listing reads, “African worker, clean and smiley.”

Laborers are often bought for $2,000 to $3,000. When someone buys a laborer in the Middle East, a legal framework called the Kafala system places the worker under the control of their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. The laborer cannot quit or leave the country without the permission of their buyer, and workers have no rights under the host country’s labor laws. The Kafala system is a program meant to monitor migrant workers in Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. However, because employers can abuse and exploit their workers, the system inevitably creates a lucrative human trafficking market.

An employer can also sell their laborer for a profit. Whoever will pay the most will acquire the worker. Moreover, popular apps now power this negative cycle of buying and selling workers. Although this form of extortion is illegal in Saudi Arabia, the magnitude of immigrant workers and the corruption in law enforcement make it difficult to stop.

Who are the Laborers?

The laborers who end up in Saudi Arabia often come from surrounding developing nations like Ghana and Guinea. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is not the only nation facing this kind of online human trafficking. For example, people buy and sell laborers through apps in Kuwait in the same manner.

In 2019, the undercover BBC News Arabic team went to Kuwait to discover how easy it was to buy another person online through these human trafficking apps. The journalists posed as a married couple interested in buying a maid. They searched the websites and apps in hopes of talking to one of the laborers. Eventually, a seller offered them a 16-year-old maid. Having an underage worker is both illegal in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and is also in violation of international human rights laws. The journalists took their information to the police. Within a few days, they found the girl a new home with an adopted family in Guinea. Unfortunately, many laborers cannot escape the cycle of human trafficking because of the Kafala system and continue to experience extreme abuse and dehumanization. 

Government Efforts

The nation of Saudi Arabia has been labeled a Tier 2 on the U.S. Department of State watch list for human trafficking in 2020. According to the U.S. government, “The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”

In 2020, Saudi Arabia moved from a Tier 3 to a Tier 2. This is because of the implementation of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The plan is to help victims of extortion by establishing prevention measures and protective resources. This program hopes to stop or reduce the amount of slavery and human trafficking in Saudi Arabia.

The NRM works alongside the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) to end human trafficking. The NRM has many facets to reach this goal. It provides help phone lines, data collection and training to spot and stop human trafficking. The program uses the combined efforts of education and policy to reduce and eventually end human trafficking in Saudi Arabia. Although the issue is still prevalent, efforts to stop human trafficking in Saudi Arabia are moving in the right direction.

– Rachel Wolf
Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Yemen
The story of Yemen has been more bitter than sweet in recent years. A multinational proxy war that has become disguised as a civil war has landed the country into the illustrious label of “worst humanitarian crisis.” While many experts understand the deep-rooted complexity of the Yemeni disaster, few acknowledge the many equitable woes, such as human trafficking, that have emerged from the other larger issues. The numbers on human trafficking in Yemen are very unclear due to the lawlessness throughout the country but NGOs reported many Yemeni populations being at risk because of the armed conflict and economic conditions. Whether it be a migrant in search of work or a soldier fighting in the conflict, the voyage is dangerous and the process is unfair.

Human Trafficking and African Migrants

Saudi Arabia has the largest economy out of all the Arab states due to its large petroleum reserves. This attracts many migrants from east Africa, specifically Somalia and Ethiopia, who are searching for opportunities that are harder to come by in their own countries. In order to reach Saudi Arabia, they have to cross the Red Sea into Yemen and travel north to the border which requires a complex network of smugglers to organize travel and get them entry into the Saudi Arabian border. Approximately 138,000 people, mostly Ethiopians, crossed the Red Sea in 2019. However, those numbers reduced in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The conflict in Yemen has allowed these smugglers to thrive from the lawlessness. But the conflict adds an increased level of danger and those individuals who decide to make the trek across the Red Sea and through Yemen must put themselves at the mercy of a smuggler. Additionally, the fighting along the border, as well as road closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have made it difficult to get into Saudi Arabia. As a result, many end up having to stay in Yemen with no money or communication with family back home.

Houthi Control

Some migrants get close to reaching the Saudi Arabian border in Houthi-controlled northern Yemen but if Houthis catch them, they frequently have to remain in Yemen with very few ways of leaving. Migrants that Houthis catch experience arrest and must pay an “exit fee” for which they can then go back down south to the edge of Houthi control. At this point, they do not have money or work and thus become stuck in Yemen.

Some migrants face even worse fates if Houthis catch them. Upon arrival, many go to Yemeni detention centers where they wait for their family back home to send a ransom while they experience torture and abuse.

Human Trafficking and Soldier Recruitment

Internationally denounced, many Yemeni end up fighting in the ongoing conflict, with Saudi Arabia having a large role in the recruiting. Recruiters receive pay for each person they send to the Saudi Arabian border, but oftentimes those who undergo recruitment are young soldiers who live in tough circumstances making it easy for others to exploit them. The situation has received the description of “a trafficking of youth souls at the port, just like livestock.”

Recruits end up in terrible conditions and they have to fight to survive. Once they arrive at the recruitment camp, they can only leave if they obtain an injury or participate in a collective protest. Additionally, they can experience detention in prisons if they try to escape. At one point, Houthi forces bombed a prison with detainees that attempted to escape the fighting, resulting in the detainees’ deaths. For many, the only option for escape is to pay a smuggler. This dangerous cycle for a recruited soldier makes human trafficking in Yemen a lucrative business.

Actions to Stop Human Trafficking in Yemen

Because of the lack of control Yemen has over its own country due to the conflict, poor economy, lack of basic institutions and many other problems, it is not taking enough tangible steps to help curb the business of human trafficking. However, one small group battling the problem is the Yemen Organization for Combating Human Trafficking, which emerged in 2009.

Responses from the international community and the U.S. government are the most crucial in helping stop the problem. UNICEF published a paper focused on the issue and the policy proposals that it has determined would be the most effective. Those proposals focused on eliminating the supply and demand of the trafficking business as well as recommending governmental responses both regionally and around the world that would target families vulnerable to trafficking.

The Yemeni government repeatedly recognizes this as a problem and has made anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts but it is clear that it requires more attention. Until more international involvement with a focus on diplomatic steps to bring peace to Yemen emerges, human trafficking will thrive under the chaos. President Biden recently announced the U.S. would be ending support to Saudi Arabia for its offensive efforts in Yemen. One will have to wait and see whether that will have any significant impact on bringing peace to the country and curbing the demand for human trafficking. However, at least it is one positive stride in comparison to other approaches thus far.

– Stephen Blake Illes
Photo: Flickr

Hajj Continued Despite COVID-19Mecca, the epicenter and fifth pillar of Islam, has hosted around 2 million Muslims in recent years. However, due to COVID-19, they had to downsize it in 2020. With 1.8 billion Muslims globally, Hajj is compulsory at least once in a lifetime. This year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia limited the annual pilgrimage to Muslim residents residing within the country. An estimated 1,000 Muslims attended in an unprecedented attempt to mitigate crowds and spread of the virus. The allotted amount of pilgrims grew to ensure Hajj continued despite COVID-19.

Umrah Suspended

Umrah is a voluntary pilgrimage that Muslims can take at any point and often lasts only two hours. Millions perform it annually due to its short duration and low cost. It is different from the Hajj, which is longer and compulsory for all Muslims but often limited by physical ability and finances.

In March, Saudi Arabia reported its first confirmed coronavirus infection in the kingdom. A man who traveled to Iran, which at the time was the viral epicenter in the region, returned to Saudi Arabia and was quarantined immediately after diagnosis. The kingdom responded to the increasing rate of infection by suspending Umrah until further notice. As of August, COVID-19 has delayed visits to the holy sites of Medina and Mecca for Umrah regardless of residency, visa or nationality. Furthermore, travelers who possess an Umrah visa will not be allowed entry into Saudi Arabia.

The Hajj Continued Despite COVID-19

As of August 14, Saudi Arabia has had nearly 296,000 COVID-19 cases with an excess of 3,338 victims. As a result, Hajj, the main event of the Islamic faith, will see a dramatic downturn in 2020 — the first in decades. Saudi Arabia has 29 million residents, yet only 1,000 Muslims were initially allowed to attend this year’s pilgrimage due to the pandemic.

Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten, Minister of Hajj and Umrah, stated that the 2020 pilgrimage will be exceptional due to the pandemic. However, he assured that the area would implement strict precautionary measures to ensure that pilgrims remained healthy during Hajj. The country also went through an intense selection process with a period of quarantine required upon entering the holy cities. The quarantine was mandatory upon entry and exit. The Hajj continued despite COVID-19, but officials wanted to make it as safe as possible.

The Turnout

The annual pilgrimage officially ended on Sunday, August 2, with a larger turnout than expected. Therefore, Hajj continued despite COVID-19. Authorities allowed 10,000 pilgrims to enforce social distancing among local Saudis and foreigners that attended. Authorities ensured safety by requiring pilgrims to don a face mask and an electronic wristband to track their movements. Following the pilgrimage, health officials administered coronavirus tests, and they required all attendees to quarantine. Additionally, Saudi authorities ordered thorough sanitation of the site to reduce any risk of contagion.

– Michael Santiago
Photo: Needpix

Healthcare in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East, with more than 34 million people, and it is a country highly dependent on oil for income. The Ministry of Health (MOH) operates, controls and manages public health in Saudi Arabia. Here is some information about the challenges and efforts to privatize healthcare in Saudi Arabia.

Challenges in Healthcare in Saudi Arabia

The MOH is responsible for prevention and primary care and sponsors over 3,300 health centers in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia established the department nearly 100 years ago to provide free health services to its citizens. However, the MOH could not meet the population’s healthcare needs, which stimulated and motivated changes in the country’s healthcare systems.

Media reports claimed that the public health system in Saudi Arabia presented deficiencies in maintaining standards. Public health services were more difficult to maintain as public health spending rose due to the aging Saudi Arabian population and higher chronic disease rates.

The government’s challenge in sustaining proper public health services is primarily due to the reduced revenues from oil. But the government was keen on reforming the health sector to fulfill social demands in the country, which ultimately led to the privatization of public health systems. Privatization happens when a publicly-owned business or industry transfers to private ownership and control. In healthcare, privatization involves non-governmental individuals becoming engaged in financing and managing healthcare.

 A study in Taif found that only 59% of patients who sought treatment at public healthcare facilities were satisfied in comparison to 77% satisfaction in the private sector.

The New Saudi Health System (NSHS)

The New Saudi Health System (NSHS) allowed local and foreign insurance companies to deal with expatriates and citizens in the private healthcare sector. Additionally, new legislation allowed private healthcare providers to enter the healthcare market.  Private healthcare continued to grow after the government introduced interest-free loans to encourage the construction of private facilities. Foreign investment supported the transition, which reached $3.5 billion in 2018.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is a loan for a small business that needs help paying its workers. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank believe PPPs would improve health care services, and the Saudi Arabian government has drawn up a PPP law that aims to boost private healthcare.

Efforts to Privatize

 Privatization intends to serve the needs of the rising population. Saudi Arabia will need 5,000 more beds by 2020 and 20,000 more beds by 2035, so the country hopes to privatize 295 hospitals and 2,259 healthcare facilities by 2030. With these changes, experts expect to see life expectancy increase to 78.4 for males and 81.3 for females by 2050. Leaders hope that privatization will reduce government healthcare spending and ultimately produce new funding for the MOH.

Privatization increases the motivation to provide efficient healthcare. Leaders in Saudi Arabia constructed Vision 2030, which is a framework and collection of long-term goals and expectations “to create a vibrant society in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams.” A key factor in the Vision 2030 blueprint is the privatization of healthcare in Saudi Arabia as it aims to improve the lives of those living in the country.

– Rachel Durling
Photo: Flickr

SDG Goal 5 in Saudi Arabia
The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), declared in 2015, are a list of 17 goals of economic and social development upon which each nation has received the call to improve. SDG Goal 5 requires each member state to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. This article contains some updates on SDG Goal 5 in Saudi Arabia.

Despite a longtime refusal to challenge embedded cultural hostility towards women, the government of Saudi Arabia has made some modest changes that have lifted some of the restrictions that have historically been placed upon Saudi women. Examples include the 2011 decree allowing Saudi women to vote and the 2018 decision to allow Saudi women to drive.

As per the SDGs, Saudi Arabia must work toward developing a more equitable society for women by the year 2030. The following are updates on SDG Goal 5 in Saudi Arabia.

Women’s Representation in National Politics

One indicator of SDG Goal 5 is women’s representation in the national parliament of a country. Given that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, it does not have a national parliament. The consultative Shura Council is the closest approximation to a parliament and is responsible for submitting legislative recommendations to the King.

In 2013, Saudi King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the 150-member council for the first time. However, as of 2017, female representation on the Shura Council has remained at 20% and the Saudi King is the one one who can increase it.

Recent Decrees Have Weakened the Male Guardianship System

Another indicator of SDG Goal 5 is the promulgation of legal frameworks that promote equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex. Any updates on SDG Goal 5 in Saudi Arabia would be incomplete without an assessment of the status of the male guardianship system. By law, Saudi women must be under the authority of a male relative or spouse. Until recently, Saudi women could not apply for a passport or leave the country without their male guardian’s approval. Neither could they register marriages, divorces or their children’s births.

However, in 2019, a series of decrees announced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman weakened the authority of the male guardianship system.

Today, Saudi women can obtain a passport and travel outside the country without male permission. Moreover, women can now register marriages, divorces and their children’s births. Additionally, employment opportunities for women have also expanded, with law guaranteeing a woman’s right to work.

The male guardianship system does not allow for equality and non-discrimination of women under the law. Despite these recent reforms, the law still upholds certain powers of the male guardianship system. For example, women still need the permission of a male guardian to marry and live independently, and only men can pass on citizenship to their children.

Child Marriage in Saudi Arabia

Child marriage has been a historic issue in Saudi Arabia. However, in January 2019, the government of Saudi Arabia implemented new marriage regulations for children preventing girls and boys as young as 15 from marrying without the consent of a court of law. Although the U.N. does not have publicly available data on the child marriage rate in Saudi Arabia, the fact that child marriage is legal opens the possibility for a high proportion of marriage of girls under age 18.

These updates on SDG Goal 5 in Saudi Arabia demonstrate that although a series of recent reforms have eased the burden on Saudi women and girls, the government of Saudi Arabia continues to uphold certain legal institutions of gender discrimination. Low representation in the Shura Council, an intact male guardianship system and regulations enabling child marriage serve as examples of the challenges that Saudi women still face in 2020.

– John Andrikos
Photo: Flickr