King Salman of Saudi Arabia this week issued a royal decree lifting the kingdom’s ban on women driving. The change will come into effect in June 2018. Until then, the kingdom remains the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive but the historic move is about much more than women’s rights.
Amnesty International praised the move in a statement, calling it “a testament to the bravery of women activists who have been campaigning for years that the government of Saudi Arabia has finally relented and decided to permit women to drive.”
Over the decades, many Saudi women have protested against the ban. In 1990, 47 women were arrested for driving in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. In 2013, several more took to the streets in their cars to protest. A year later, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from United Arab Emirates (UAE). In early 2017, Hathloul was arrested again. Saudi authorities did not disclose the reason behind her arrest.
However, though the move will change how Saudi women participate in Saudi society and clearly is a breakthrough, the decision doesn’t show the kingdom heeding the demands of activists. Historically, women who protested were stigmatized, named and shamed. The decision is all about timing and a risky national reform agenda.
In her interpretation of the surprise decision to let women behind the wheel, Financial Times deputy editor Roula Khalaf tied it to the earlier momentous decision by the king of Saudi Arabia to change the order of his succession: “allowing women to drive is the result of both political calculation and economic necessity. As the king paves the way for his son to take over, what was long considered impossible in Saudi Arabia has become possible.”
The modern face of Saudi reforms
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son and now heir to the throne, is leading economic reforms in a bid to modernize the kingdom. His plan, called Vision 2030, entails creating 1.2 million private sector jobs and selling up to five percent of state-owned Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world.
Vision 2030 also plans to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent.
Last year, Saudi investor Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal al-Saud said that the ban on women driving was dragging the economy down. Despite boasting a higher university attendance rate compared to men, women only make up 15 percent of the workforce.
Saudi leaders also seem to be warming to the notion that if their country wants to attract foreign investment, it needs to improve its record on gender equality. Prince Khaled bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., said that women would not have to get male permission to drive or get licenses.
But change is proving more difficult than the Crown Prince anticipated. In September, he revised the plan after rushing the first one, as reported by Bloomberg.
A cosmetic choice
Mohammed Bin Salman, known as MBS, is seen as the modern and international face of Saudi Arabia. However, this glosses over his more controversial moves. Chief among them is the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which bin Salman effectively launched as defence minister.
According to Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi Arabian professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, the move is an attempt to improve Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
“The Saudi king needs women at the moment. He needs the publicity, given that his regional policies have utterly failed in Syria, Yemen, and Qatar,” she said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have accused Saudi Arabia of committing war crimes in Yemen. A UN report released in September 2017 found Saudi-led coalition airstrikes to be the “leading cause of child casualties as well as overall civilian casualties.”
The UN’s human rights’ body proposed a resolution to send investigators to the war-torn country. A vote for the probe is expected this week at the United Nations Rights Council in Geneva. Saudi Arabia retaliated by threatening to cut diplomatic and financial ties.
The three-year-old conflict in Yemen between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led military coalition has left at least 10,000 people dead and put more than seven million Yemenis at risk of starvation.
An outbreak of cholera that has killed at least 2,000 people since April, combined with high levels of abject poverty, have exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
Entrenched cultural conservatism
In Saudi Arabia, a long history of cultural and religious conservatism won’t be easily shattered with a stroke of the pen. Not all women are ready to take the wheel and not all men are willing to let them.
Lifting the ban has caused outrage among some men, especially Saudi clerics who backed the ban on the grounds of sharia, or Islamic law, as interpreted by the dominant Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia, which has historically been granted sway over religious matters in an alliance with the ruling Al-Saud family. Wahhabi clerics used some odd justifications for the ban including saying women’s brains were too small and that driving would damage their ovaries.
Although lifting the driving ban is a step forward for women’s rights, gender equality in Saudi Arabia is still many years away. Though women can now drive without male permission, the wilaya (guardianship) system remains the norm. This is a set of policies that restrict a woman to have a wide range of choices unless permitted by her male guardian – typically a father, husband, brother or even a son. Women still can’t travel out of the country or get bank accounts or passports.
“In practice, it means women are unrecognised by the state as full legal adults,” said Saudi writer Halal Al-Dosari in The Guardian.