A few weeks have elapsed since Saudi Arabia’s royal decree lifting the long-standing ban against women driving came into effect on Sunday June 24, 2018. While there have been other recent significant reforms of the male guardianship system in the country—a system under which women outside the home are in some respects treated as minors under the care of their closest male relative throughout their lives—lifting the driving ban has captured wide attention as being long overdue.
The story of Saudi women’s efforts to bring about this change is a unique case study with the potential to massively change the country’s social, economic, and even political future. Awareness of this risk results in the question ‘why now?’
Credit is generally given to Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the throne of his father, King Salman. The Crown Prince is young—aged 32, well traveled, and modern in many respects, but, as other of his actions show, he remains intent on continuing the royal family’s domination of every aspect of life in the country over which it rules.
The clearest indicator of the spirit in which this change has come about is the concurrent action taken by the government against the women who caused the issue to become such a public relations problem for it in the first place. When the intention to lift the ban was first announced, the authorities warned activists not to publicly comment on it. Then, a month before the ban was to be lifted, on May 15th, 14 activists were arrested, nine of who reportedly remain behind bars at the time of writing.
And, far from supporting the activists, local media reportedly made unpleasant accusations against them. The three woman at the forefront of ‘October 26th Driving’, a social media campaign asking Saudi women to post images of themselves driving, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, and Loujain al-Hath are amongst the group that may still be imprisoned.
Others who first protested the ban 28 years ago in 1990 were also arrested but have been released. The point would seem to be that this change of course is to be regarded as a beneficence emanating from the monarchy’s own sense of appropriate timing and purpose.
There are pragmatic reasons for lifting the ban. Many Saudi women are well educated and willing to contribute to diversifying the Saudi Arabian economy away from its dependency on the oil industry. Their brainpower and talent is an untapped resource. Simply put, being able to drive themselves will give Saudi women greater opportunity to participate in the workforce
There is also the suggestion that lifting the driving ban will enable Saudi men to be more productive in their work-a-day lives by freeing them from the demands of attending to the personal needs of their female relatives.
An interesting wrinkle to this story comes from reports of the reaction of the car companies operating in Saudi Arabia. Within days of the lifting of the ban being announced, all of the major car companies publicly praised the move: good ethics and, unquestionably, good for business. Then when the arrests happened, it seems they went silent.