Female ambassadors to Saudi Arabia? But will it change something?

Shirin Ebadi said that the European countries should send woman ambassadors to countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran. What do you think about this idea? Would this be worth to try? Would it be helpful for women’s rights in these countries or perhaps the impact will be very limited, and why? Read few comments.


Thomas Lippman, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute

I think I know what would happen if the US or any other important country sent a woman to Saudi Arabia as ambassador: nothing would happen. The Saudis would pretend not to notice — they would accept her in her official capacity and deal with her on a professional basis.  I was there when Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state to visit the Kingdom. She was courteously received by the king, did her work, and left. The same thing happened in 1974 when Henry Kissinger was the first Jew to go there as secretary of state. Before that, the Saudis didn’t admit any Jews to the country. They could hardly refuse to receive Kissinger, so they did; King Faisal pretended not to know he was Jewish.

I don’t believe the presence of a female US ambassador would have any effect whatsoever on the status of Saudi women. There have been several female US diplomats at the embassy in lesser roles, and they have had no impact on the host country.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Research Fellow, Baker Institute, Associate Fellow, Chatham House

I think the idea of sending women ambassadors to Saudi Arabia deserves support. Female ambassadors would act as powerful role models in a society in which significant generational change is well underway, and while they would undoubtedly attract resistance and opposition from conservative elements within Saudi Arabia, they also would strengthen advocates and voices of reform within the Kingdom.

Toby JonesAssistant Professor of History, Rutgers University

It’s a fascinating suggestion and one I would endorse. Of course, there have been many women diplomats who have served in Saudi Arabia and probably in Iran. I don’t much about the latter, since the US has not had diplomatic ties with Tehran since 1979. But I suspect that the EU countries have sent women to work in Iran. And, Hillary Clinton had very reasonable relations with her counterparts in Saudi Arabia.

In practice, then, women have long served in these places. It would be another thing completely, though, to send women to serve at the rank of ambassador in the region. It would certainly send a powerful symbolic message, although I do not know that it would have much concrete effect on women’s rights in the region. The reality is that there is very meaningful and robust women’s political activism on the Arab side of the Gulf and we should not overstate the extent to which they look to or need Western women to act on their behalf. In fact, many Saudi women, for example, see Western attempts to “save them” as detrimental or at least marginal to their own political interests. They often reject the patronizing and out of touch tone that characterizes elite Western feminism.

Still, sending women ambassadors could productively complicate foreign ties and the way diplomacy works in the region– compelling Saudi and other officials to challenge their own countries rigid gender systems by being seen with women and so on.

Lisa Wynn, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University

Symbolically, this step might be important for Western countries, but I can’t imagine it would make much difference to women in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Speaking of the country I’m familiar with, Saudi Arabia, I can tell you that many Saudi women are politically powerful, behind-the-scenes, and economically powerful, as business owners.  They might not take on very visible public roles, but for most educated and upper-class Saudis (i.e. those who are part of the political elite who have the power to make changes in society), the concept is a powerful, high-status woman is not a foreign concept, whether in other societies or in their own.  For example, they’ve all either hosted Hillary Rodham Clinton or wished they could host her. So sending women ambassadors to these countries is not going to make the locals suddenly change their attitudes about the roles of women in public.  They already live with the concept that what some women do in other countries isn’t necessarily what women in their own societies should do.

Daniel Crecelius, Emeritus Professor of History, California State University, Los Angeles

Some countries have already sent women ambassadors to Muslim states.  The US had a female ambassador in Egypt, for instance, and I believe presently has a female ambassador in another Arab state or two.  But, given the conservatism of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, I do not think it wise to impose a female ambassador on these two states.  Years ago I travelled through Saudi Arabia with a group of academics and journalists.  I speak Arabic and I overheard a lot of complaints against the females in our group when we made official visits to various institutions. It is an important principle of foreign relations that each side respect the culture and opinions of the other side.  Frankly, I think it is much more important to send an ambassador who speaks the native language and who is familiar with the local culture.  I would like to read your article when it is published.  Dr. Daniel Crecelius


2 Responses

  1. I was happy to see when I found this blog that I am not the only one who was considered the possibility of having a US ambassador for Saudi women. I think it would be beneficial for two primary reasons:
    1. It could show a concern on the behalf of the US government for the plight of women’s rights that would not necessarily be portrayed by male representatives. 2. A female ambassador could show American respect and acceptance of religious culture and customs of the region while still addressing those customs that the majority of in the Kingdom feel should be changed to reflect a more modern society. Subsequently, the changing ideas of the modern Saudi women could be brought before other countries to raise greater awareness of the true opinions of the Saudi people.

    I will soon be living in Riyadh. I have accepted a position as Associate Professor of Physiology at Princess Nora University, the largest all female University in the world. As an African-American, racial, ethnic, and overall civil rights has always been important to me. Therefore, I would love to hold such a position as Ambassador for Women. If anyone knows more about how to get involved with this movement, please let me know.

    Chantal A. Rivera, PhD

  2. The U.S. had an afro-american lady in charge of the Consulate in Jeddah back in 2002-4…. I think when the Consulate was attacked.. forget her name but double-barrelled as married to an Englishman

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