The news broke suddenly this week that Saudi Arabia had ended its infamous ban on women driving. Women across the Kingdom celebrated as King Salman Bin Abdulaziz called for licences to be printed in preparation for the first female drivers to take to the streets in June next year.
A long criticised law, the driving ban was an issue Saudi women had campaigned on for decades, many of whom faced imprisonment for their activism. The Kingdom was the last country in the world to prevent women from driving, forcing many to rely on male relatives or chauffeurs.
The government and international media have declared that it is a step forward and a victory for women’s rights. But for many, including Saudi rights group Citizen’s Without Restrictions founder and spokesman, Abdul Azeez Al-Muayad, questions remain.
We really want to understand how this decision was made, why did they ban it in the first place and how did they allow it now? How did this happen? We deserve to know.
In assessing the reasons for this sudden decision, it is impossible to ignore the context in which it has been taken. The past few months have seen great changes in the Kingdom, from the abrupt ascending of Mohammed Bin Salman to the position of crown prince this summer, to the more recent mass arrests of scholars in the country. The government’s latest move is evidential of the broader political direction in which the country seems to be turning, but contrary to what many hope, is not likely to bring significant change.
An economic opportunity
Many have noted the hand of Prince Mohammed in the overturning of the ban and this seems to conform to his actions since he replaced his cousin as heir to the throne in June. A younger and more dynamic Crown Prince has pushed economic development to the forefront of the Saudi agenda, with his Vision 2030 plan advocating for diversification away from oil, economic liberalisation and boosting industries such as tourism.
Despite this, many citizens are struggling to keep up with high costs, the shrinking of the welfare state and austerity measures which are causing misery for many. Small and medium sized businesses are also suffering as water and energy prices rise, as well as government imposed fees.
Such a situation used to be rectified by the provision of petrodollars to citizens as grants, but that is increasingly less of an option as dwindling oil prices have forced the Saudi government to rethink its future economy beyond the petroleum industry. As the world’s largest producer of oil, the country’s future looks shaky as the world looks to electric and renewable sources of energy; a sentiment also evident in the announcement that state owned oil company Aramco will go public next year.
In the midst of such uncertainty, permitting women to drive presents a huge economic opportunity. It will firstly save the country the remittances that expat drivers send back to their home countries. Prince Mohammed’s aim of increasing female workforce participation from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030 will also be made easier should highly educated women be in control of their ability of travel, and will give them greater access to the economy as consumers. It will also tackle the global image of Saudi Arabia as a backward regime, boosting foreign investment.
The Gulf’s largest and most populous state is also embroiled in numerous political controversies. Its recent blockade of Qatar on allegations that the small Gulf state supports terrorism was a move many found ironic given the alleged historic links between Saudi funding and extremist groups. Yet with no sign of the blockade ending, or Qatar buckling, the Saudi strategy to enhance its position in the region seems to be at a stalemate. At the same time, freedom of expression in the country has, if it were possible, taken a greater hit, with anyone who expresses support or sympathy for Qatar’s position liable for a prison sentence.
The Kingdom’s war with Yemen has also made it the recipient of harsh criticism, as ongoing fighting with Houthi rebels has left over 10,000 dead, some 20 million people in need of assistance according to the UN and a cholera epidemic in what was already the planet’s poorest country. Despite the UN deeming it the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, again, Saudi Arabia shows no sign of relenting, coming under attack this week for blocking medical aid shipments to Yemen.
Rumours of future diplomatic relations with Israel have also recently resurfaced, after documents leaked by the Twitter account Mujtahidd spoke of the country’s plans to “accept Israel as a brotherly state”. The Saudi public have strongly rejected any attempts at normalising relations with Israel in the past, and such reports prompted concern among many.
Once again, among such internal and external disputes, allowing women to drive in the Kingdom earns the government some much needed political brownie points, both at home and abroad, presenting the government as serving the interests of the public. The media hailing the move as the start of a new era and broadcasting the reactions of Saudi women also serves as a distraction from the shambles that the Kingdom’s foreign policy has inevitably descended into.
A move to modernise?
Even before the driving ban was lifted, Saudi Arabia was undergoing change. The same leaked reports by Mujtahidd earlier this month alleged Prince Mohammed aims to “westernise” the Gulf Kingdom, an unsurprising idea given his expressed desire on numerous platforms to integrate the country into the modern world. Such an intention also seemed present last month, when it was announced that the country’s Red Sea coastline would be developed into a global tourism destination which will be “semi-autonomous”, such that it would allow foreigners to drink and women to wear bikinis; both of which are currently not permitted.
The recent mass arrests of well-known clerics also seemed to be the latest in such attempts. At least 27 Islamic scholars, preachers, writers, researchers and poets are confirmed to have been arrested by Saudi security forces over the past month, including the prominent scholar Salman Al-Ouda, who has reportedly gone on hunger strike in protest. State security claimed only that they had arrested individuals who attempted to stir up disorder and sabotage national unity, although many have no history of opposition to the monarchy or association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi has deemed a terrorist group. Such action may surprise some due to the Kingdom’s reputation as a conservative country, but only proves once again that for the government, modernisation will never equate to political opposition.
Against this backdrop, a move that will further integrate women into society not only appeases the international community, but also gives the impression that women’s rights are being championed over the religious establishment. In actuality, women’s rights are being used as tools to further demonise alleged Islamists and present them, as the real enemies of modernity. Such a strategy has been used often in Saudis history whenever Islamist politics seemed popular among women; this appears to be the latest case.
In the midst of political, economic and social upheaval, Saudi’s rescinded driving law is a bid to win over the masses and introduce the new vision for the Kingdom. At a time when the popularity of Saudi Arabia is low, positive international coverage distracts from the images of war torn Yemen or Qatari condemnations. Similarly, the Crown Prince’s economic vision rests on social change and a consolidation of political power – enabling women to drive ticks both those boxes by changing the status quo of marginalised women in society and earning political appreciation from the public.
Whilst the removal of the driving ban can only be positive for the women of Saudi Arabia, it is indicative of a state of affairs that may leave the rest of the population worse off. The Kingdom has always been an autocratic state, and it seems Saudi Arabia’s new understanding of a modern and progressive nation will simply be a shinier version of what already exists. If recent trends are anything to judge by, it is possible that a greater crackdown on those who differ with the new direction of the state is likely to come about.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.