Most nations are in a race for higher levels of innovation and none more so than Saudi Arabia. It is desperate for investments that tap its people’s talents for new industries, not its dwindling reserves of crude oil. But to do so, it must lift the mental limits that now hinder such innovation. And nothing has represented those limits more than an official ban on women driving.
Just six years ago, one woman in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 10 lashes for violating the ban. But a lot has changed in the Gulf kingdom since then – the Arab Spring, women’s protests, and, most of all, a big drop in world oil prices. More than 70 percent of the population is under 30, with nearly a third of those unemployed. Last year, the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, laid out a bold vision to reshape the conservative Islamic society. On Sept. 27, his government announced that the ban on female driving would be lifted, starting next year.
The decision reflects not only a shift in thinking about human rights but a desire to develop modern skills among half its population, women, who are still largely kept out of the new, non-oil industries. The crown prince sees the future of the economy as knowledge-based, one that relies far less on oil and more on the traits of its people. And in today’s global economy, traits such as collaboration, openness, and flexibility – which women score highly on, according to research – are in high demand by high-tech companies.
In the latest ranking of countries on their competitiveness, Saudi Arabia is 30th. Yet in equality for women, it ranks near the bottom. According to the World Economic Forum, which conducts the ranking, the Saudi labor market “is segmented among different population groups, and women remain largely excluded.”
Women make up only about 20 percent of Saudi workers, one of the lowest proportions in the world. The government hopes to raise that to 30 percent by 2030. Women already dominate men in numbers at universities. Yet despite this high level of education, more than a third of women remain unemployed.
Saudi Arabia’s royalty still have far to go to liberate women from the so-called guardian system, a tribal tradition in which male relatives control many of the activities of women. But by lifting the driving ban, the regime has crossed a big threshold, both in the eyes of many Saudis and the world. The country’s global competitiveness may only rise as it raises the innovative capacity of its people, especially its women.