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Sensemaker: Women and MBS

Thursday 11 February 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The Biden administration approved sanctions on the leaders of Myanmar’s military coup after Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing was shot in the head by police during protests.
  • Four in ten US coronavirus deaths could have been avoided, according to a Lancet study of public health and policy under Trump.
  • Protests against the disputed result of Haiti’s presidential election were met with violence by police. 

Women and MBS

Yesterday Saudi Arabia’s best-known women’s rights activist was freed after almost three years in jail. Loujain al-Hathloul drove when it was illegal for women to drive in her country, and testified at a UN women’s rights meeting in 2018. She’d been charged with “seeking to change the political system” and “communicating with foreign journalists and human rights organisations”. 

Her release is worth celebrating; so is her extraordinary moral courage. If only the same could be said of a Saudi regime that has used her as a political pawn. 

Why was she arrested?
In 2014, al-Hathloul filmed herself driving. She explained that she was going to attempt to cross from the UAE – where she held a driver’s license and owned a car – into Saudi Arabia, where women were forbidden from driving. 

Al-Hathloul was detained at the border and imprisoned for two months. After her release, she carried on fighting for women’s rights in Saudi, whose guardianship system still prevented women working, studying, travelling abroad and marrying without the permission of a male relative. 

After presenting evidence against Saudi at the UN meeting in 2018 she was arrested again by security forces in the UAE, forced to return to Riyadh and charged with political crimes.  

Didn’t Saudi Arabia lift its ban on women driving?
Yes – a few months after al-Hathloul was jailed. Some guardianship rules have also been relaxed, but al-Hathloul wasn’t released even after the law changed.  

Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was the architect of those reforms and they have made a difference to women’s lives. His intention was to enhance his image abroad – an image reduced to that of bully and tyrant after his mass detention of Saudi’s rich and powerful in the Ritz-Carlton in 2017 and the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi the following year. 

On Trump’s watch MBS escaped US censure and built a strong personal rapport with Jared Kushner, the first son-in-law. That cosy relationship is over. The Biden administration has already criticised Saudi’s human rights record and called for an end to the war in Yemen. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” if it fails to change. The response has been swift: fewer people are being executed, jail terms for political prisoners are shorter – and al-Hathloul has been released. 

There is change in Saudi Arabia, but it’s hard to separate what is PR from what is genuine. MBS has given more freedoms with one hand, but beaten down dissent with the other. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Cladding costs
Is it fair to charge tenants in low-rise blocks to have flammable cladding removed, while not charging tenants in high-rise blocks? Is it fair to charge any tenants for the cost of making safe buildings that should have been safe anyway? The UK government is trying to sound generous in making £3.5 billion available to prevent more Grenfell-style fires in Britain’s taller blocks of flats, but is facing a rebellion from its own backbenchers, never mind tenants in buildings less than 18 metres tall, who face a £50 monthly surcharge on their rent to pay for work that freeholders and contractors are refusing to do at their own expense. Stephen McPartland MP has 40 Tory signatures on an amendment to the fire safety bill that would bar freeholders from passing on the cost to leaseholders. McPartland tells the Guardian that Downing Street is worried by the strength of feeling on this among Conservative backbenchers. So it should be.


New things technology, science, engineering

WFH
Warning: the following are findings from a self-interested survey, but they’re interesting anyway. After Covid, many US companies will cut their commercial office space usage by at least half. They’ll expect workers to work from home two to four days a week and come into the office only for one or two. Nearly a third will ditch physical HQs altogether. They’ll channel rent savings into top-notch home working equipment for staff – with huge sums left over – and they’ll take advantage of working from home to hire the best people in the world, not just the best within a commutable radius. Oh, and they’ll make a real effort to help people learn when to stop working so they don’t burn out. So says Chris Herd in a Twitter thread that he says is based on conversations with more than 2,000 firms. He’s in the business of encouraging WFH so he would say all this, wouldn’t he? Still, all caveats aside, much of it rings true. Work isn’t going back to the old days.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Shell’s peak oil

BP called it last year. Now it’s Shell’s turn. The Anglo-Dutch giant said today it’ll never again produce as much oil as it did in 2019 and will instead cut output by 1 to 2 per cent a year for the foreseeable future. It also announced plans to lower the carbon intensity of its operations and cut carbon emissions, including from the oil and gas it sells – but those are pledges. The oil production forecast is different; a moment in energy history that tells markets real change in how we fuel our economies is under way. Shell’s shares fell 2 per cent in early trading – despite an undertaking in the smallprint that it will still be paying a 4 per cent dividend to shareholders and investing heavily in upstream oil and gas production.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

NHS reform
In the middle of a pandemic, the UK government is pressing ahead with a significant reorganisation of the NHS. Delivery of healthcare and social care will, in principle, be better coordinated. A tendering rule that allowed private contractors to compete with NHS providers to deliver services is to be scrapped. The system that delivers primary care will look more like Primary Care Trusts of old and less like the clinical commissioning groups that replaced them. This may seem a bad time to shake up a system under acute stress but two factors are forcing the government’s hand: tens of thousands have died because the social care system is not properly connected to the healthcare system. And Andrew Lansley’s 2012 reforms never worked. They took a complicated system and made it more complicated (and vulnerable to fraud). The white paper is out today.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

High crimes, waffling lawyers
“It was disorganised, random, it talked about many things but it didn’t talk about the issue at hand. So if I’m an impartial juror and I’m trying to make a decision based on the facts presented on this issue, then the House managers did a much better job.” So said Bill Cassidy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, after opening statements in the second Trump impeachment trial. “It” was the bizarre offering from Bruce Castor Jr, Trump’s lead lawyer, who strayed into the ancient history of democracy and at one point appeared to dare the Department of Justice to arrest the former president. The House managers were a team of Democrats who played carefully chosen video clips from 6 January to make the case that the putschists that day were a) following Trump’s instructions and b) out to kill House speaker Nancy Pelosi and vice president Mike Pence if they could find them. Cassidy has switched sides in this debate. It is still unlikely that many other Republican senators will, but those that don’t may be treated roughly by history.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Photographs by @LinaAlhathloul/Twitter, Getty Images