King Shakes Up Government
King Abdullah took bold steps to reshuffle his government in February 2009, promoting reformers, firing controversial officials, including the conservative head of the religious police and the country's most senior judge, and appointing his first-ever female minister, for women's education.
Saudi Arabia was largely spared the popular uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa in early 2011, largely because King Abdullah remains popular among Saudis and the country's oil wealth provides a level stability not seen in countries such as Egypt. Nevertheless, unemployment among young Saudis is high, housing is in short supply, and there has been a push for broader civil liberties, particularly for women. In an attempt to prevent protests on Saudi soil, Abdullah, upon returning to Saudi Arabia after spending three months in Morocco recovering from back surgery, announced a $10 billion aid package that helps Saudis buy homes, start businesses, and marry.
In September 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for seats on the Shura council, which advises the King on policy issues. Women will not be allowed to vote until the next election cycle in 2015. Still, the decision is a significant victory for women in a country where they are not allowed to drive and must have a male chaperone with them in public at all times. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that has not granted women suffrage.
Saudi Arabia lifted the ban forbidding women from competing in the Olympic Games, and sent three athletes to London in 2012. In another advance for women's rights, 30 women took seats on the formerly all-male Shura council. It was an enormous step that met with opposition from conservative clerics. In October 2013, dozens of women got behind the wheel to protest the kingdom's ban on allowing women to drive. Police did little to stop the women from driving.