King Abdullah was recently chosen as one of the world's top 10 most respected leaders by Newsweek. This might come as a surprise to some since his actions do not usually make big headlines internationally. Nevertheless in the past few years he has accomplished a lot for women in Saudi-Arabia and often works behind the scenes to push reform.
Another topic recently in the headlines is the Saudi female cashiers now working at a large grocery chain called Panda. This is great advancement in Saudi terms. Prior to this female cashiers worked exclusively in women only environments hidden from public view.
There are now a few brave women starting work at a Panda in Jeddah. This of course created an uproar of protests from conservative Saudis and some scholars.
Interestingly the Panda chain is owned by Savola group and the new minister Adil Fakieh happens to be the Chairman.
So is this all just coincidence? Most likely King Abdullah is supportive of employing Saudi women and advancing their position in society, hence the appointment of Fakieh. Surely the newly appointed minister will be in favor of employing more women in the Panda grocery stores and later other chains will hopefully follow their example. Panda and Savola group will be protected from the attacks of extremist clerics and sheikhs by Fakieh and he has back-up from the King himself.
The King is known to be in favor of reform, especially when it comes to women's issues in the country. Earlier this year a photo was released with Abdullah and the Crown Prince posing together with 40 women. This was another quiet statement from Abdullah in relation to relaxing the Kingdoms strict rule on gender mixing.
Last September, the King inaugurated the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level mixed-gender school devoted to advanced scientific research. Shortly after the University was opened a high ranking cleric criticized KAUST deeming the gender mixing a great sin. This led to the cleric getting sacked by the King.
King Abdullah also appointed the first female minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez as deputy minister of education early last year.
Perhaps he has realized that the saying "a nation is as strong or weak as its women" really does have truth to it.
The Saudi King is empowering the women of Saudi-Arabia slowly, but surely. He is enabling them to come out of the shadows to participate in taking the Kingdom to more modern times. Change does not happen swiftly in the Kingdom. Things take time to advance even a little bit. Although all these issues might seem trivial and insignificant, in the context of Saudi society they are enormous.
What is one small step for the rest of the world, is one giant leap for the Saudis.
Will King Abdullah be the monarch to lift the ban on women driving??