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Gender Quotas in Saudi Arabia: Unpacking the Political Conditions

Talking about gender quota and its sociology, it is interesting to take a look at the example of Saudi Arabia. It is the seemingly most unexpected place to introduce a policy aimed at the representation of women in politics and increase their role in internal and external affairs in general. In Saudi Arabia, the state’s primary law is shari’ah, moreover, in its Wahhabi interpretation of Hanbali school of law, which is usually regarded as the strictest maddhab (school of law) in Islam (Ghattas, 2020). It is mostly known for its suppression of women rights and where woman is mostly deprived of any activity without supervision of her husband or male relative.

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In 2013, king Abdullah, back then monarch of Saudi Arabia, appointed 30 women to the Majlis al-Shura (Parliament) – the country’s highest advisory body. In practice, the reform took effect no earlier than four years later, when the next local elections were held in the country. In 2020, the third most important post in the Majlis al-Shura was taken by Dr. Hanan bin Abdulrahim al-Ahmadi, who became the new Assistant Speaker of the Kingdom’s advisory body (Al-Arabiya, 2020). Salman bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, the Saudi monarch, decided to reshuffle the personnel in the Majlis of al-Shura, the Council of Senior Ulama and the Supreme Court amid the so-called ‘oil war’ and the consequences of the pandemic.

However, Saudi Arabia is quite a conservative monarchy, where the actual decision-making processes are in the hands of the royal family (currently not even all of them since the start of accumulating power by Muhammad bin Salman). Majlis al-Shura, roughly interpreted as the parliament, in reality, is responsible only for observations of legislation of Saudi Arabia (which is the shari’ah law). Moreover, it is deprived of adjudication, being a consultative body in the service of the King. Therefore, the introduction of a gender quota in Saudi Arabia should be assessed as a double-edged sword.


The assessment of the gender quota introduction in Saudi Arabia should be assessed by considering the broad discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of gender quotas. In general, there are three types of quotas: reserved seats, legislative and voluntary-party quotas (Arendt, 2018). When talking about advantages, it is possible to distinguish two main points which are usually proposed by gender quotas sympathizers. First of all, the introduction of gender quotas will allow to align the representation of men and women, which in the modern world should be seen as an absolute necessity (Turnbull, 2021). Secondly, women presented in the government will help in balancing the political agenda. It can make it closer to the needs of those whom male representatives of a certain party/coalition can hardly hear or even ignore.

The critics of gender quotas often point out that the introduction of quotas is usually saying very little about a country’s adherence to democratic principles. The willingness to pursue gender equality in all spheres of life is rarely shown by the percentage of gender quotas. As an example, the critics of quotas mainly put forward the example of Rwanda (61% of parliament is constituted by women) (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2021). Afghanistan is usually the second example where more than 25% of Afghan parliament was presented by women before the Taliban takeover (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2021). These countries, however, are the targets of consistent abuse of women’s rights and violation of their freedoms, which indicates the low level of democracy, indicating the low importance of gender quotas.

Within the framework reflected by these debates, we can build an understanding and implications on the Saudi Arabia case. On the one side, the introduction of gender quotas in conservative society can mark the start of the increase of awareness of gender equality and women representation, It is a common knowledge that this issue is mostly neglected in the region of the Middle East, and there are little signs of its development. These developments were made in a special way, for instance, in Majlis al-Shura, a separate entrance for women was built (Al-Arabiya, 2020). This shows that despite seeming willingness to endorse politics of gender equality, it became hard to overcome prejudices, which were cultivated in Saudi Arabia for centuries.

On the other hand, reforms related to the improvement of women’s situation in Saudi Arabia are mainly curated by Muhammad bin Salman. The Crown Prince is well-known all over the world for his ambitions of getting the throne as soon as possible. The excessive public perception of himself as a reformer, moderator of Saudi Wahhabi traditions, and defender of human rights are controversial. His reported participation in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of one of the leading feminist activists in the country – Nuha al-Balawi for more than two years are bright example of this controversy. The only reason that brought Nuha al-Balawi out of prison, was the publication of intelligence files regarding the Khashoggi case. It brought Muhammad bin Salman under a wave of criticism, which he tried to counter by freeing al-Balawi. Thus, we can mainly conclude that Saudi Arabia, and bin Salman in particular, simply using issues connected with women representation and women freedoms in the political bargain with the USA.

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In Middle East countries, society is way stricter with women, but as elsewhere, women have social and cultural roles. Arab women also want to combine these roles – mother, wife, guardian for their loved ones, and at the same time have different interests. For instance, building a career and representing their interests on the governmental and, in some cases, tribal level. The obstacles, however, can be seen not only in conservative regimes of the Middle East but in the general assessment of the introduction of gender quotas, where Saudi Arabia is only one case among many. Of course, women’s experience in political life is necessary, but it is obvious that the situation is not so simple. The problem lies not even in the underrepresentation of women but in how the representative body generally fulfills its function. It makes no difference how many women are elected to parliament, if the parliament adopts laws, unrelated to the real situation. This is the case with Saudi Arabia, when it is focusing mainly on political interests, or even deprived of adopting regulations, being a consultative body.

Within this brief analysis we can see that quotas are not enough. Free access to elections, the absence of obstacles to active participation in politics, freedom of the press – all this is no less important than gender quotas themselves. That is why nothing definite can be said, looking only at the number of women in parliament: it is also necessary to take into account what political regime is established in the country and what is the whole geopolitical picture. This is the only way to ensure sustainable economic growth and guarantee equality of opportunity. It will bring the decision-making process to a qualitatively new level, allowing to consider the interests of the broadest possible circle of people. In the long term, this is beneficial both economically, politically, and socially.


Al-Arabiya (2020). Dr. Hanan al-Ahmadi, Saudi Arabia’s new assistant speaker of Shura Council

Arendt, C. M. (2018). From critical mass to critical leaders: Unpacking the political conditions behind gender quotas in Africa. Politics & Gender, 14(3), pp. 295-322.

Turnbull, B. (2021). Quotas as opportunities and obstacles: Revisiting gender quotas in India. Politics and Gender, 17(2), pp. 324-348.

Ghattas, K. (2020). Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the forty-year rivalry that unraveled culture, religion, and collective memory in the Middle East. Henry Holt and Company.

Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2021). Gender quota database.

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