How Saudi fascination with ‘Ivanka bin Trump’ underlines changes in ultra-conservative kingdom
Saudis watched on state television on Saturday as Ivanka Trump strode at her husband’s side down a red carpet to meet the royal court
The top trending Twitter hashtag in Saudi Arabia on Saturday wasn’t visiting President Donald Trump or even first lady Melania Trump. Instead, Saudis were abuzz about #binttrump – Arabic for “Trump’s daughter,” Ivanka.
Saudi Arabia’s fascination with Ivanka Trump highlights how far women have advanced in the kingdom, and how much further they have to go.
She is an Orthodox Jew, having converted when she married New York real estate developer and editor Jared Kushner, but that’s not a sticking point with Arab men and women in this Sunni Muslim country. They see the president’s eldest daughter, more than her other three siblings, as a reflection of and credit to her father.
“Usually in Saudi, when we like somebody, especially in the hierarchy of the royals, we call them Abu [or father of],” said businessman Ahmed Ibrahim. “With President Trump, when we want to mention how great he is, we say ‘Abu Ivanka,’ we don’t say ‘Abu Eric’. She’s amazing. I think she’s going to have a lot of fun over here. A lot of ladies are excited to meet her. She represents smartness and style.”
Tracking Ivanka Trump’s visit in a country with one of the highest per capita rates of social media consumption, he said, has “become a social trend” – from hashtags to Facebook timeline and WhatsApp posts.
Ivanka Trump is viewed as accomplished in so many ways, that “when you mention that in front of Saudi women, they get jealous,” Ibrahim said. “My wife sometimes, when I say Ivanka, she gives me this look.”
Saudis watched on state television on Saturday as Ivanka Trump strode at her husband’s side down a red carpet to meet the royal court, striking up animated conversations with the Saudi delegation during a tea ceremony.
She and Melania Trump were not expected to wear head scarves – Michelle Obama and Laura Bush didn’t, nor did German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May. The first daughter’s long black, white and maroon dress got rave reviews online, especially among men.
Hatoon Kadi, a female comedian on the popular YouTube channel UTurn, said her Facebook timeline was replete with men gushing about Ivanka Trump.
“Ladies are telling them chill. We don’t do this. It’s like you have never seen a pretty lady in your life. Come on!” Kadi said. “Some of the guys are telling the photographers please concentrate on her.”
Kadi planned to attend a Twitter event in Riyadh on Sunday that was on the president’s schedule, and expected to see Ivanka Trump there. She was hoping to snap a selfie with Ivanka Trump and post it just to stoke her male friends’ jealousy.
“I’m going to have lots of material for my next episode,” she predicted.
Among those registering to participate in the Twitter event was Kholood Alomairi, 21, who’s studying marketing innovation and technology at a local university. Last semester, she did a case study about Ivanka Trump.
“She’s very classy. She has 100 per cent confidence,” Alomairi said on Saturday, adding that if she has the chance to talk to her, “I would ask for her advice in life: what are the things she wants to accomplish?”
Ivanka Trump is an aspirational icon for many Saudi women: traditional wife and mother of three, balancing not just a career but also a family business many women here relate to because the only way for them to get ahead was to rely on a support network, chiefly their fathers.
“In Saudi Arabia, the culture is stacked against you to become a successful woman with a long career. A lot of these women have successful fathers who mentor them, give them jobs in their businesses,” said Muna AbuSulayman, host of the popular Saudi talk show Softly Speaking. “There’s a lot of similarities between her and successful women in Saudi Arabia.”
The kingdom has women in leadership roles at the stock exchange, banks, newspapers and ministries. Most come from powerful families that helped them flourish. AbuSulayman said many here see Ivanka Trump working with her father in the White House as chipping in, “providing support”.
“She’s like us,” AbuSulayman said. And yet, she isn’t.
Hoda Helassi, one of the first 30 women appointed to the 150-member consultative council to the monarchy four years ago, noted that unlike Ivanka Trump, Saudi women still face major obstacles, including being barred from driving, free travel and participation in the workplace. But they are making progress, she said.
“What is going to change attitudes and society and the makeup of its fibres is young people and the economy. No longer can households survive on one salary,” Helassi said, and women have started marrying later and having fewer children. “We need to find our own modernity, incorporating with it our values and our traditions.”