As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits the United States, he’s advertising what seems to be a new, progressive Saudi Arabia.
Women are “absolutely” equal to men, he declared in a “60 Minutes” interview, and went on to describe the new rights women enjoy in Saudi Arabia, including the right to drive, pursue new careers, run for office, and more.
These steps toward gender equality have been described as harbingers of a new era of openness and tolerance.
But looking beyond these headline-grabbing moments — many of which remain unrealized — the Saudi Arabia of 2018 doesn’t look much different than it did in years past.
Prince Salman has introduced an ambitious “Vision 2030” plan that seeks to transform the country’s economic and civic realms, but in the past few years the kingdom’s human rights abuses have only been intensifying.
Take the war in Yemen.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a US-backed coalition to defeat the Houthi rebels who gained power during the country’s civil war, creating what has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world by the United Nations.
More than 10,000 civilian deaths have been recorded throughout the war, the majority from coalition airstrikes.
Such indiscriminate bombing has largely destroyed Yemen’s infrastructure, leading to a lack of water and sanitation throughout the country, which has, in turn, caused an unprecedented cholera crisis affecting more than a million people.
The Saudi-led coalition has also blockaded ports throughout Yemen, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching communities and deepening a famine that affects millions of people.
This blatant disregard for human rights is mirrored back in Saudi Arabia.
Executions in the country have doubled over the past eight months as a crackdown on dissent sweeps the country. Recently, Indonesia unsuccessfully tried to stay the execution of a migrant worker who was allegedly coerced into admitting that he murdered his employer.
Meanwhile, dozens of humans rights advocates are serving long prison sentences.
Earlier this year, Prince Salman allegedly ordered the detention of scores of wealthy businessmen and seized their assets.
And while Prince Salman said that the country is close to achieving gender equality, the reality is that women are still second-class citizens who, for a staggering array of everyday activities, need to first get male permission, and who face segregation in restaurants, clothing stores, and in most public spaces.
When a woman took a picture without a face covering last year, for example, she received countless death threats.
In his “60 Minutes interview,” Prince Salman said, regarding women’s rights, “we have come a very long way and have a short way to go.”
Every new right for women in the country is undoubtedly important, but, in reality, the country has come a short way and has a long way to go.