Saudi Women Break Barriers, Shine in Politics, Sports, AI

 Rayyanah Barnawi (Photo taken from her account on X)
Rayyanah Barnawi (Photo taken from her account on X)

Saudi Women Break Barriers, Shine in Politics, Sports, AI

 Rayyanah Barnawi (Photo taken from her account on X)
Rayyanah Barnawi (Photo taken from her account on X)

On International Women’s Day, Asharq Al-Awsat highlights Saudi women’s great contribution to the development of society in various fields, including human rights, space, artificial intelligence and sports.

Saudi women have made remarkable progress in recent years in a number of areas, including political work, as Saudi Arabia now has five female ambassadors abroad - an important development that reflects the Kingdom’s commitment to empowering the role of women in decision-making.

- Human Rights

In a historic step, Hala Al-Tuwaijri was appointed President of the Human Rights Commission in the Kingdom in December 2022. Al-Tuwaijri’s assumption of this post comes within the framework of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to promoting human rights and achieving sustainable development.

Al-Tuwaijri plays a vital role in enhancing awareness on respecting human rights and the values of justice and equality. She also works to emphasize the need for communication and interaction with the local and international community to achieve the goals of the Human Rights Commission.

- Space

In February 2023, a new page was opened in the history of Saudi space exploration, with a historic achievement that saw Saudi Rayyanah Barnawi becoming the first Saudi female astronaut. The event constituted a turning point in the development of Saudi women and their realization of their dreams in the fields of science and technology.

Barnawi, a biomedical researcher, was part of a Space X mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in May 2023. She has over 9 years of experience in stem cell and tissue re-engineering programs, and throughout her career she has worked on improving research protocols, exploring many technologies, managing several breast cancer research projects, and publishing numerous publications in the same field.

- Artificial Intelligence

Dr. Kholoud Al-Mana recently established the Saudi Center of Excellence for Artificial Intelligence, which is the first of its kind in the Kingdom, with a global multidisciplinary team, to target high-impact artificial intelligence projects that fuel innovation and investment in the field’s infrastructure.

Al-Mana is an exceptional Saudi woman, who was appointed as ambassador for global women’s empowerment by the United Nations International Organization for Human Rights and selected as a keynote speaker at the 7th World Summit on Human Rights in Geneva.

- Motorsport

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has witnessed great development in women’s participation in fields that were previously limited to men, including motorsport.

Maha Al-Hamali is considered one of the most prominent female drivers in the field, as she won a number of local and international races, and became an inspiration for many ambitious Saudi women.

Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)


Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.