- Saudi Arabia is reforming a law which required women to receive permission for a man to get a passport or cross a border.
- The system made it difficult for abused women to flee the country as refugees — a situation highlighted by INSIDER’s reporting.
- When a backlash came, and Apple and Google were pressured to stop hosting the app which Saudi men used to grant and rescind travel permission, they did nothing.
- The tech giants have shown themselves to outsource moral decisions about their own platforms to the Saudi royal family.
- The situation is not surprising, but that does not make it less of a disgrace.
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On Friday morning, the government in Saudi Arabia announced that it would dismantle a small but significant part of the oppressive ‘male guardianship’ legal system that formally designates women there as second-class citizens.
The change follows a firestorm of criticism of the system, prompted by a series of reports by INSIDER’s Bill Bostock showing how Saudi men could use it to make it very difficult for mistreated women to flee as refugees.
Although readers seemed immediately sympathetic to the plight of the women we described, the most explosive element of the story was hiding in plain sight.
It was that, in the age of the smartphone, these requests were largely administered on iPhone and Android devices, using Saudi Arabia’s in-house app, Absher, which had been approved by Apple and Google for their app stores.
Politicians and rights groups lined up to accuse the tech giants of complicity in an obviously unjust system. US Senator Ron Wyden told them it "flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend."
Despite months of questions, the response from both companies was initially silence, and then a collective shrug of the shoulders. In short: they did nothing.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, ambushed on the subject during an interview with NPR, promised to look into the issue. The investigation came to nothing — at least that we know of.
On the issue of whether or not its services should be used to help keep refugees in a country they would desperately like to flee, Silicon Valley did not take a decision.
Instead, this week’s change was left to the conscience of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, a man credibly accused of dealing with critics by having them choked to death then cut into small pieces with a bone saw.
The new system is a partial change: women (and indeed men) under the age of 21 still require a guardian’s permission to travel.
Many of the most prominent women to run away, in spite of Absher’s grip on them, were in their late teens, and will face the same problems.
Once they leave, women are treated like national security threats, aggressively tracked and sometimes forcibly brought back.
The motives are also questionable.
Saudi Arabia’s attempt to burnish its image around the world — which included a big-money PR tour and meetings with to Apple and Google — have faltered of late, not least because of the attention heaped on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
An investigation into the treatment of other Saudi dissidents, published this week by Vanity Fair, was a timely reminder that Khashoggi’s case is by no means a one-off.
A long-overdue change to one of Saudi Arabia’s most objectionable laws is a relatively easy way to get back on track the narrative of nation reforming itself.
In 2019, it is naive to assume that some of the biggest companies on earth would act against their own interests on a point of principle. We have much evidence to the contrary.
Nonetheless, this case is a sad reminder that the commitment of giant tech companies to forging a better world only goes so far.
- US regulators are talking to founders of companies Facebook acquired as part of the government’s new antitrust probe
- Facebook just took down hundreds of accounts connected to the Saudi Arabian government, which were being used to spread propaganda
- Microsoft hired a man named Mac Book to star in its latest ad slamming Apple’s laptops