Belgium expected to appoint female Saudi ambassador

By Judith Vonberg, CNN

(CNN) -- Belgium is likely to be the first country to send a female ambassador to Saudi Arabia, according to Belgian state broadcaster VRT, in a move that chimes with the kingdom's recent liberalizing moves.

Dominique Mineur, who is currently Belgium's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, will move to Riyadh in summer 2018 if she is confirmed, according to VRT. The news was first reported by Belgian newspaper De Tijd.

Saudi Arabia, which adheres to some of the strictest interpretations of Sunni Islam in the world, has long prevented women from taking on a larger role in its society.

The election of Saudi Arabia to the principal UN commission charged with promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women earlier this year sparked fury around the world and a political feud in Belgium.

Belgium was one of the countries that voted in favor of Saudi representation on the commission, a decision which Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said was made without sufficient political assessment.

"I regret this vote," he told Parliament. "If it could be done again... I of course would have pleaded against a favorable vote. There is no ambiguity in the matter."

"We must be determined to double-down on our efforts to promote women's rights as well as the universal values of human rights," he said.

Others were even more critical. "Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women's rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a human rights group that acts as a UN watchdog.

'Vision 2030'

There has been no official reaction yet from the Saudi government to Mineur's appointment.

Last year, Saudi Arabia's young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled an ambitious plan -- titled "Vision 2030" -- embracing anti-corruption initiatives and social and economic reforms, including several recent decrees lifting gender-related restrictions.

Saudi women will soon be allowed to drive and to attend sports events at several major arenas -- privileges denied to them until now.

Despite these recent headline-grabbing decrees, Saudi women still have very few freedoms. Restrictive guardianship laws govern nearly every aspect of their lives -- women cannot marry, divorce, travel, get a job or apply for a passport without permission from their male guardians.

They are forbidden from mixing freely with men in most public places and from appearing in public without a niqab.


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