DAVID IGNATIUS: A powerful Saudi symbol

By David Ignatius

RIYADH – A week ago, Saudi Arabia saw something that people in the kingdom often talk about but rarely witness – a potentially important political reform.
Saudi King Abdullah announced on Jan. 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a 150-person consultative body, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women here.
I met here last week with Hayat Sindi, a scientist who is one of the newly appointed Shura members. She took her doctorate from Cambridge in 2001 in electromagnetic engineering, and in the years since has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, launched two companies and helped run a third. From humble beginnings in Mecca, Sindi grew to become a prodigious student. She remembers reading a book in her early teens about the discovery of DNA by British scientists, and dreaming that she would study in Britain someday. She did just that after college, against her father’s initial wishes and despite the fact she knew little English – earning a master’s degree at King’s College, London, and then her doctorate at Cambridge.
In her last year at Cambridge, she ran out of money and was afraid she would have to drop out. Abdullah, who was then crown prince, was known to support women’s education, so she wrote him and asked for help. He called personally and asked her how much she needed to finish her studies.
Abdullah intervened again a year later: When Sindi finished her thesis, she said she went to the Saudi embassy in London to register its title. The Saudi clerk said it was impossible – illegal – because Saudi women weren’t allowed to study engineering. She demanded that he call Abdullah’s palace in Riyadh, which prompted a royal edict that women could study whatever scientific topic they liked.
The rest of Sindi’s resume is equally improbable, and dazzling. What difference will Sindi make on the Shura Council? She says she wants to encourage peer-reviewed science, and entrepreneurship, but she understands that part of her role will be to expand Saudis’ expectations of what women can accomplish.
Waiting for political reform in Saudi Arabia is like watching the grass grow. It often seems as if nothing is happening. But during the past two years of Arab revolution, it has seemed possible that Saudi Arabia might be the next autocratic nation to face popular revolt. As Karen Elliott House asks in “On Saudi Arabia,” her carefully reported new book: “Can the Al Saud regime reform in time to save itself?”
Thirty new members of an appointive advisory council aren’t going to rescue the monarchy. But the Shura appointments suggest that Abdullah, who at 88 may have limited time left on the throne, wants to set in motion a framework for transition to a more modern nation. Another recent move was Abdullah’s selection of 53-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Saudi head of counterterrorism, as minister of the interior – making him the first member of his generation in a top leadership position.
The wheels of change move slowly in the kingdom. They do seem to be turning, but is it fast enough?
David Ignatius writes for The Washington Post. His email is davidignatius@washpost.com.