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Women Take the Wheel: Continuity and Change in Saudi Arabia

Katrina Hall

The cessation of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving has garnered much attention and discussion across the globe in recent months. The prohibition was officially lifted on 24 June 2018 and is one of a number of initiatives recently taken by the Saudi King and the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to increase women’s participation in the economy and society. The expansion of women’s rights is largely related to the crown prince’s Vision 2030, an ambitious roadmap for reform that aims to diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil.

Recent changes for women include the decision to allow women to attend mixed sporting events, increased public sector job opportunities, a goal to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% and the ostensible relaxation of women’s clothing regulations. The crown prince recently signalled that “[t]he laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia [Islamic law]: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men … This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black headcover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.” In 2015, for the first time, women were allowed to vote in municipal elections and stand as candidates.

While these changes are all individually significant and have been regarded as evidence that the country is becoming more progressive, the extent and impact of reform is, as of yet, unclear. Employment rights are limited for Saudi women and they exist within a restrictive male guardianship system: they cannot travel, marry or be released from prison without their guardian’s consent. Daily activities such as finding accommodation or commencing litigation require assistance from a male relative. If Saudi women are not married to a Saudi citizen their children are ineligible for Saudi citizenship. In the weeks prior to the ban on women driving being lifted, several female activists who had advocated for the right to drive were arrested and detained for allegedly communicating with “overseas enemies”. This crackdown on dissent has raised questions about the government’s intention to improve women’s standing in society.

So, what is behind the reversal of the Saudi Arabian government’s policy on women driving? And what explains the contradictory move of arresting those who helped bring it about? Commentators have offered multiple reasons. Haifa Jawaad argues that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of rebel groups in Syria and Libya and aggressive military actions in Yemen have isolated the kingdom from the international community. Thus, the decision could be viewed as a political move in the face of international condemnation, aimed at restoring Saudi Arabia’s credibility as a major regional power. Martin Hvidt asserts that the primary motivation for lifting the ban was the need to boost the economy by making men and women more productive at work. With women comprising only one in five Saudis in the workplace, lifting the ban will be critical to improving the Saudi economy in the long term. The driving ban, intense heat conditions and limited public transport services have meant that women have faced multiple obstacles getting to work, and walking or riding a bike is not possible for many. This has also affected men’s productivity at work. Leaving work to drive wives and female relatives to medical and other appointments is commonplace.

Some have suggested that the recent arrests of women driving activists is aimed at appeasing conservative sections of society opposed to the reforms, and that it may also signify a clear message to those pushing for civil and political reform that the government will determine the pace and agenda of change. Over the past two decades there has been a gradual groundswell of local actors advocating for civil rights and respect for the law, presenting a greater challenge to the government. Members of the official religious establishment, unaffiliated government clerics, independent rights activists, writers and NGOs have harnessed the informative potential of the internet and slowly built a culture of accountability by advocating for democratic freedoms. The religious establishment plays a significant role within society because the ruling Al Saud family relies on their support for political legitimacy. However, deeply conservative elements remain within the powerful clerical establishment, and Saudi officials often point towards this culture to justify their failure to end discrimination against women.

The reasons for lifting the ban on women driving may involve some elements of each of these arguments. However, what is clear is that this change marks a significant cultural turning point in Saudi society. The right to drive is likely to have a significant psychological impact on women and better integrate them into the workforce and society. It should also have a material economic impact through increased productivity, consumer demand and spending. However, while the male guardianship system remains in place, women’s civil and political rights will remain restricted, as will the potential for realising the economic goals of Vision 2030. It seems clear the government is trying to balance liberal and conservative constituencies and is acutely aware of the political risks that accompany social and cultural change. Deep, structural reform is never easy, and amid the recent resurgence of oil prices it may be tempting to delay the implementation of reforms aimed at diversifying the economy. This could have disappointing outcomes for women and Saudi citizens who have long advocated for political and social change. But for now, Saudi women’s hard-won freedom to drive is a landmark moment in the struggle for reform, and should be celebrated.

Katrina Hall

BPLSc (IR) (Australian National University) 2012

Juris Doctor candidate (Australian National University) 2018