€‹Saudi Arabia has lifted its much-maligned ban on female drivers, but what is the motivation behind this high-profile move?
Across the US and Europe, there is one fact about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that everyone seems to know: women aren’t allowed to drive.
Last night, with a single stroke of his pen, King Salman reversed a policy that had made the Kingdom the only country in the world that forbid women from driving. The announcement was made simultaneously at events in Riyadh and Washington, timed so that the news hit airwaves just before Saudi Arabia went to bed and just as the US East Coast woke up.
Saudi social media immediately went into overdrive, churning out celebratory memes and contradictory opinions. The hashtag #saudiwomencandrive immediately reached the top of Twitter’s trending lists, and stars such as Rihanna posted in favor of the change, highlighting the global visibility of an issue that has stained Saudi’s reputation for decades.
The timing and fanfare surrounding the announcement hint at the importance of this moment for Saudi Arabia, but also suggest the political nature of the decision.
Although it was Saudi Arabia’s King, Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who signed the Royal Decree that ended the ban, the chief motivation likely originates with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud.
MBS, as the Crown Prince is known, has shaken the Kingdom to its foundations with a series of ambitious reforms, and has recently torn up the playbook on succession by taking the position of his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as Crown Prince.
Such radical moves in the conservative Kingdom do not come without a price, and the Crown Prince was seen to be increasingly embattled before yesterday’s announcement. His consolidation of power necessitated a scaling back of the lofty and specific goals set by Vision 2030. In order to appease the population, bonuses were restored, changing the government’s austere budget plans. His blockade of Qatar is at a standstill, and so is the war in Yemen. Oil stands at a two-year high, but is selling for far less than Saudi Arabia’s breakeven point.
Allowing women to drive is an easy win for the Crown Prince. There is no other single move that improves Saudi Arabia’s standing abroad or attracts as much positive attention, two things that MBS has expended considerable energy trying to do. It also serves his reform program by empowering half of the workforce and reducing dependence on foreign workers, and it shows that the Kingdom has, without question, entered a new era.
In TBY’s coverage of the Saudi economy, the issue of women driving came up repeatedly. Government agencies tasked with reducing unemployment found themselves hamstrung by the fact that half of the population couldn’t get to work. According to Ahmed Al Yamani, CEO of Takamol, a government program focused on making Saudi nationals more employable, some 70% of unemployed Saudi nationals are female. That means the country’s nearly 13% unemployment rate (much higher for the crucial 20-35 age range) is almost entirely due to women not working.
In an interview, Ahmed told TBY that: “There are multiple barriers for women wanting to enter employment. These include transport and childcare… Today, the cost of transport is a challenge for female workers — transportation can cost between SAR1,500 (USD400) and SAR2,000 (USD500) per month.” Those figures are daunting, and when combined with childcare often leave women with very little at the end of the month, diminishing their incentive to find work.
Despite the fanfare and the largely positive reception abroad, a backlash has already begun. The Arabic hashtags meaning #citizensagainstwomendriving and #thewomenofmyhousewillnotdrive were already trending by Wednesday morning.
Despite the inevitability of a pushback from the Kingdom’s conservatives, the magnitude of this change must be recognized. Never before has a cause so aggressively championed by the Saudi Arabian left been won outright, and never before has the royal family been so bold in standing up to the Kingdom’s powerful conservative faction.
A famous women’s rights campaigner, Manal Al Sharif, who was imprisoned for driving, tweeted “#Women2Drive done #IamMyOwnGuardian in progress” shortly after the announcement, neatly summarizing the incredible momentum that has been building in Saudi Arabia, and setting the reviled guardianship system as the next target for the left. In Mohammed bin Salman’s short tenure we have learned to expect rapid and radical changes. That intrepid pace of reform certainly looks set to continue