In January this year, a group of Saudi women flocked to Jeddah’s Le Mall, a glamorous shopping centre. But this was no ordinary day out. The pink and orange balloon-filled exhibition room where the crowd posed for selfies was the site of the country’s first ever women-only car show.
On 24 June 2018, Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, in place since 1990, will be lifted. Car manufacturers are courting female drivers with ads and marketing campaigns. Five Saudi universities have launched driving schools for women.
Driving is not the only change. In recent months, women have been allowed to enter sports stadiums, more jobs have been opened to them and the government has withdrawn powers of arrest from the religious police, who are tasked with promoting virtue in public places.
The changes have been met with a storm of positive press in the West. But questions remain. Why are they happening now? What difference will they really make? And how can we reconcile them with a recent series of arrests of prominent women’s rights activists?
This wave of liberalisation began with the recent rise to power of the 32-year-old Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman. Bin Salman is a reformer who travels the US wearing suits, speaks fluent English, and has opened cinemas again. He even allowed a WWE wrestling event to be held in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
LSE politics professor Steffen Hertog said he is a “new-generation leader”, who wields more centralised political power than his predecessors and has a higher appetite for risk and change.
Two years ago, Bin Salman announced a plan for economic reform, known as Vision 2030, that points to an urgent need for the country to reduce its reliance on oil and bring in new sources of revenue. Since the 1980s, when the Saudi government took over control of its national oil and gas company Aramco from the US, the country has relied on oil revenues to run its public services and feed its people.
Today, that strategy won’t do. The country is experiencing a youth bulge and oil prices have collapsed over the past five years.
Women in the driving seat
Women’s rights liberalisation helps the government in its most important economic reforms, primarily aimed at boosting domestic employment and attracting foreign investment.
Women represent a critical but untapped source of labour, and often bring much-needed skills. According to its Ministry of Education, Saudi Arabia now has more women than men in university — partly because universities are gender-segregated — but women make up nothing like half the workforce. An integral part of the 2030 strategy is to increase the proportion of women who work from 22% to 30%.
Progress on women’s rights is also a tool to attract more foreign investment and partnerships, which Bin Salman has been carefully pursuing. On a recent trip to the US, he met with dozens of executives, politicians and media moguls — including Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk and Bill Clinton.
“It’s about reinvigorating the image of Saudi Arabia on an international scale to make sure that it looks a little more stable and welcoming of foreign partnerships,” said Dina Hussein, a Middle East policy specialist at SOAS and the Middle East Institute. “For a very long time when you thought about Saudi Arabia you just thought about how far behind they were on women’s rights,” she added. Now, it’s the gender reforms that are hitting the news.
Change on the ground
While the motives for them are largely economic, that does not mean these changes are merely window-dressing. “Being able to drive will make a huge difference for many Saudi women, as does the defanging of the religious police,” said Hertog.
The Saudi passport directorate also said it received 107,000 job applications within a week from Saudi women after it began listing job openings for them on its website.
But many barriers to women living equal lives remain. Fundamental among those is the guardianship law. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian — a husband, brother, or even a son — who controls critical life decisions on issues from finance and marriage to travel and applying for a passport.
“Guardianship is the biggest obstacle to see effective change in women’s lives more broadly,” said Hussein, adding that there is still a very long way to go to on a range of gender issues.
Testing the waters
If and when those guardianship provisions are fully dismantled in part depends on internal reactions to this first wave of change. “It’s testing the waters domestically,” said Hussein.
Little vocal opposition has reached the Western media so far. But that may not indicate a total lack of internal dissent. Hertog said that a conservative minority is “very unhappy”, but does not have the power to stand up to the government. “They’ve seen that political dissidents quickly end up in incommunicado detention,” he said.
And while Saudi society has become more liberal over recent decades, it’s not just religious conservatives who are wary. According to Hussein, the majority are still very hesitant, including an older female generation.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, the Saudi government has cracked down on the women’s rights activists whose work had helped bring about the driving ban removal.
At least 11 people have been arrested and interrogated without access to lawyers. “[Bin Salman] is trying to send a message internally that reform will come solely from government and that women’s rights activists and scholars will not be in charge,” said Hussein.
That’s worrying, not just from the perspective of human rights abuses. When you remove women’s rights activists from the equation, there’s nobody to push for further reform, nobody to flag problems with implementation of the new laws and nobody to query the government’s international messaging.
The right to drive is undoubtedly a critical step for women to pursue more equal and fulfilling lives. But it’s one change among many that needs to be taken, and, critically, it should not become a cover for human rights abuses and arrests of internal opposition. — Odette Chalaby
(Picture credit: Flickr/Christopher Rose)