Who is behind the wheel in a changing Saudi Arabia?
June 22 at 12:59 AM Email the author
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For decades, if a critic of Saudi Arabia wanted a simple shorthand for what he thought was wrong with the country, there was one obvious example: Saudi women were not allowed to drive. The restriction was without parallel in the modern world, and to many it showed that while Saudi Arabia was a wealthy and seemingly modern U.S. ally, its society was fundamentally stuck in the past.
As of this weekend, that example will no longer stand. Sunday w ill be the first day in Saudi history that women will legally be allowed to drive, a symbolic milestone for the kingdom and its 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS.
The move to allow Saudi women to hold driver's licenses was announced in a royal decree last September. Though signed by King Salman, it was widely attributed to MBS's influence, part of a grander plan the millennial crown prince is implementing to move Saudi Arabia into the future.
But nine months later, it's apparent that things aren't quite as simple as just issuing a proclamation. Though women will be allowed to drive, it's unclear how many actually will. A relatively small number of women have received licenses, and many more women may be nervous to join them â" plenty of Saudi men are not fully on board with the policy.
"Many men have vented their opposition to the decision to lift the ban using a Twitter hashtag that transla tes to 'you will never drive,'" reported Margherita Stancati and Donna Abdulaziz of the Wall Street Journal. "After the banâs planned lifting was announced in September, a man was arrested for posting a video online in which he threatened to set fire to women and their cars if they dare to drive."
And in recent weeks the government has arrested some of the most prominent female campaigners who had pushed for women on the roads. As one activist told The Washington Post's Loveday Morris, the "arrest campaign is an arrest campaign against feminism in Saudi [Arabia]."
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh in 2017. (Saudi Press Agency/AP)
The arrests showed that for all the talk of a new, "normal" Saudi Arabia, the country's reinvention is, in many ways, skin-deep. MBS may have opened the door to female drivers and previously restricted forms of entertainment, including cinemas, but major political reform is not on the agenda anytime soon. And the changes are primarily driven by economic considerations, even those surrounding women's rights.
The country's state-run economic giant, Saudi Aramco, has long given women Western-style freedom within its compounds. As he announced the royal decree about driving last September, then-Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Khaled bin Salman said that women "need to drive themselves to work."
That idea fits in with the much-hyped Vision 2030 plan first unveiled by MBS in April 2016. The plan, launched as a dip in oil prices made Saudi Arabia's economic future look precarious, calls for Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy away from energy and cut the economic flab accumulated after living for deca des on a diet of petrodollars. One goal listed in that plan is to increase female participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by the year 2030.
MBS is clearly not afraid to upend things, as evidenced by the widely criticized anti-corruption drive in which he placed some of his fellow royals under house arrest at the Ritz Carlton Riyadh. In addition to his domestic reforms, he has pushed an aggressive and certainly risky foreign policy that sees Saudi Arabia facing off against Iran, an old rival, and isolating Qatar, an old ally.
MBS's social-policy moves have also hit at the power of the country's conservative Islamists. "We don't know what's happening," said one man in Riyadh who described himself to my colleague Kareem Fahim as a Salafist, a member of a strict conservative strain of Islam. âItâs like weâre becoming strangers.â
Visitors eat popcorn as they attend a screening of "Black Panther" in Riyadh on April 18. (Amr Nabil/AP)
Between considerable palace intrigue and rampant rumors online, there are fears that this segment of society could pose a threat to the Saudi government. âThe religious people are quiet for now. Will they continue to be quiet, or will they react violently?â one ex-official wondered while speaking to the Economist.
That may help explain why the Saudi government is willing to do things like arresting female activists only weeks before women are allowed to drive â" it not only taps the brakes on a social reform that is unsettling for many in the country, but also reminds Saudis who is in charge.
For Saudi women hoping for reform, it puts them on unsteady ground. The rules that prohibited women from getting driver's licenses were just one restriction among the many placed on Saudi women. Some of these other rules are also starting to shift: The Post's Liz Sly recently reported that in the comparatively liberal city of Jiddah, some women have started to abandon the head-to-toe abayas that previously covered them, and cafes are removing the sections that divided men from women. But such changes are spread unevenly.
Perhaps the most onerous of all â" the male guardianship system that legally puts every Saudi woman under the authority of a male relative â" remains in place. As one anonymous Saudi woman told Agence France-Presse: "I can drive in my own country, but I cannot leave my own country unless my own son permits it?" For now, at least, much in MBS's ambitious kingdom is still the same.
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