Why Are Apple and Google Hosting an App That Subjugates Saudi Women?

A Saudi woman holds up her cellphone next to a stand at the International Coffee and Chocolate Exhibition.
A Saudi woman uses her cellphone to take pictures of the International Coffee and Chocolate Exhibition in Riyadh in 2017.
Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images

A version of this article originally appeared on the website of the Center for Global Development.

The Trump administration and Congress are both currently promoting initiatives to tackle global gender equality and women’s economic empowerment: There’s the administration’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative and the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act. The initiatives both focus on better using the U.S. aid budget to increase economic empowerment, and the W-GDP includes a pillar on eliminating the legal, regulatory, and cultural barriers that prevent women from participating in their local economies. A recent case of Google and Apple abetting discrimination emphasizes the need for legislation that would leverage the power of U.S.-based multinational enterprises to encourage gender equality in the workplace in countries that legally enforced discrimination. The legislation could be a powerful next step for congressional and administration champions of equality in the workplace. And the creation of a new U.S. Development Finance Corporation provides one tool for the law to use.

This week, Business Insider reported on the Saudi government system Absher. The site is used for a number of government services, but it also allows Saudi men to specify when and where adult women under their “guardianship,” including unmarried daughters and wives, are allowed to travel. It also includes an automatic SMS feature, which texts male guardians when a woman uses her passport at a border crossing or airport check-in. The Absher app is hosted by both Google and Apple.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which the U.S. has implemented, suggest that in countries where domestic laws and regulations conflict with internationally recognized human rights, “enterprises should seek ways to honour [rights] to the fullest extent which does not place them in violation of domestic law.” In hosting the Absher app, Apple and Google are actively enabling the abuse of those rights. They ought to refuse to host this app without the need for government intervention.

But the case suggests the potential need for intervention. At the moment, there is little to nothing in the way of enforcement of the OECD guidelines in the United States. My proposal for a U.S. law or executive order to combat gender apartheid at work in discriminatory countries could help fill that gap. The proposal focuses on trying to minimize the impact of local laws on women’s abilities to work for U.S. companies operating in affected countries, including requiring firms to “make all reasonable attempts to ensure women can apply to and hold employment positions in order to mitigate the impact of laws and regulations that specifically discriminate against women’s right to leave the house, travel, open bank accounts, and open or run businesses.”

The example of Absher suggests an additional mandate under the law: U.S. companies should not provide products or services that materially abet violations of women’s fundamental rights in countries practicing gender apartheid. That would include hosting an application specifically designed to help enforce laws that prevent women from leaving the house or the country of their own volition.

The proposal for combating gender apartheid suggests some incentives for countries to reform, many of which would not take new legislation. For example, Section 231A of P.L. 87–195 suggests that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which provides financing and guarantees to U.S. companies investing in the developing world, “may insure, reinsure, guarantee, or finance a project only if the country in which the project is to be undertaken is taking steps to adopt and implement laws that extend internationally recognized worker rights.” Countries that ban women from leaving the house or performing a range of jobs appear in clear violation. Investments in countries including Saudi Arabia are already blacklisted from OPIC on the grounds of limited worker rights, but a screen for women’s equal rights around work would be likely to exclude other countries still eligible.

The new U.S. Development Finance Corporation—a recently legislated replacement for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation with more money and a wider range of investment tools—has a specific mandate to prioritize the reduction of gender gaps and maximize development impact by working to improve women’s economic opportunities. It should implement clear policies restricting any investment in countries practicing gender apartheid, especially if the investment is in an industry with restrictions on women’s participation, in a country where women need permission from their male guardian to work or women are not allowed to move freely without their male guardian’s permission.

U.S. firms should not profit from abetting gross violations of women’s rights. It is time for legislation to enforce that.

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