In June 2018, Saudi Arabia will shed a distinction that it shares only with the Islamic State when it overturns a ban on women operating motor vehicles. King Salman has announced that the ban on female drivers will be formally lifted in June of next year. This announcement comes after a of a string of reforms in the conservative Kingdom, whose ruling Al Saud family governs the nation under the prescriptions of Wahhabism, a strict variant of Sunni Islam. These reforms are progressively relaxing the strict religious code that has marginalized Saudi women from public life and confined them to the home. While Saudi women now attend university at a higher rate than their male counterparts and participate in the workforce, the driving ban has proven a very significant impediment to female mobility in a country lacking in public transportation infrastructure. The influential prince Alwaleed bin Talal has estimated that Saudi families spend an average of $1,000 (£500) a month on drivers to ferry women to work, university and social activities. The ban on female drivers has had a clear and considerable economic cost, one that has discouraged educated women from seeking jobs outside the home.
Many have attributed the recent liberalization of the Saudi regime to King Salman’s thirty-two year old son, the charismatic crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is the youngest ever minister of defense and is in charge of much of the Kingdom’s social reforms, foreign policy, and internal security. He is considered by reformers to be the country’s greatest hope for a secular reform and liberalization. Since the Prince’s meteoric rise to power, the Kingdom has taken considerable steps to integrate women into political and economic life, including the decision to allow women to run for municipal office. Many have attributed this relaxation of sexual segregation and bolstering of women’s rights to the government’s Saudi Vision 2030 campaign, a movement to turn the Kingdom into a ‘global investment powerhouse’ with a vision of a ‘tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.’ This movement has imagined women as an integral part of Saudi Arabia’s economic future, a reality that requires a relaxation of strict sexual segregation and Wahhabi moral codes. As the Economist noted, ‘Tapping the kingdom’s greatest underused resource-its women-is an obvious place to begin’ in creating a more dynamic economic future.
The Saudi government has launched the Vision 2030 campaign in an attempt to diversify an economy almost wholly dependent on oil wealth. As oil prices have continued to decline, the government has felt the pressure to expand its portfolio immensely. The Kingdom has seemed to recognize that it will be far more attractive to foreign investment if it relaxes its strict religious code and allows women more fundamental freedoms. Accordingly, the government prepared this announcement for an international audience, hosting a ‘splashy’ media event in Washington, DC where the Saudi ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman announced the news. In comparison, the domestic announcement was more sober and brief, unceremoniously delivered on the evening news while many citizens were sleeping.
Shedding the distinction that has defined the Kingdom’s gender roles to the outside world is a quick and public way to for the government to change the international narrative about the conservative state. As Katherine Zoepf noted, ‘The Saudi government has many issues that it needs to discuss with the world, but women’s-rights issues were derailing the conversations.’ However, social reform stemming from such tactical and contingent economic decisions may not be most sustainable way to change gender norms in the conservative Kingdom. Skeptics have noted that when countries initiate reform when oil prices are low, this reform tends to be abandoned when they rise again. In fact, Saudi Arabia shelved a previous ‘Saudi Vision’ campaign, Vision 2024, after a period of declining oil prices ended. While it would be incredibly politically challenging to reverse a reform as significant as allowing women to drive, the liberalizing spirit of the Al Saud family could evaporate with better economic fortunes. Furthermore, this announcement has conveniently deflected international attention from a recent political crackdown on the family’s opponents and critics.
Ultimately, public reception of these new freedoms will determine whether this moment truly marks the beginning of a social revolution for Saudi women. While the Council of Senior Scholars, the Kingdom’s highest religious body, has endorsed the decision this move may be more indicative of Prince Mohammad’s ability to muzzle religious dissent than conservative acceptance of altering gender norms. These scholars have consistently opposed women getting behind the wheel, producing a litany of religious, biological and social arguments to keep women off the roads. Perhaps the most notable, and certainly the most inventive, of these claims was that driving was damaging to women’s ovaries and pelvis. It seems unlikely that religious opposition to this policy has abruptly evaporated. Militant conservative opposition to female drivers has already mounted, with the Ministry of the Interior announcing that it had arrested a man who promised to ‘burn’ any woman he saw with a broken down car. A Whats App group called ‘the virtuous ones’ has also been created to plot how citizens can prevent the decree from being implemented. For many Saudis, this law has represented the Kingdom’s distinctively conservative Islamic character and distanced it from Western influence and infiltration. While many women and men have tirelessly campaigned for the ban to end, it still holds some salience for many conservative Saudis who value their country’s self-appointed role as the bastion of the Islamic world. A royal decree is unlikely to fundamentally change these attitudes overnight.
The relaxation of a draconian and unparalleled ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia is certainly a step forward for gender equality, and will allow Saudi women unprecedented mobility and freedom. However, until the Saud dynasty and the conservative elements of Saudi society accept gender equality, women in the Kingdom are a ways from equal citizenship.