What drove Saudi Arabia to lift driving ban? It's not all about women.

Alleviating the burden on middle-class Saudi families is part of it. So is the boon to the economy from enabling women's employment. But it could also be a distraction as the crown prince consolidates power and cracks down on dissent.

Hasan Jamali/AP/File
Aziza Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in March 2014 as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. The months-long campaign saw small numbers of women get behind the wheel almost daily. Now, after years of ridicule, a royal decree has ordered the ban be lifted.

A royal decree last week marked a watershed moment in Saudi Arabia. No longer would the kingdom be the only country on the planet to prevent women from driving.

Yet while some were quick to hail the long-discussed move as a giant leap forward for women’s rights in conservative Saudi Arabia, longtime observers are reserving judgment on whether the step is likely to lead to greater reforms or was simply a political maneuver.

It remains unclear, these observers say, if the measure was driven by a true desire for social reform, economic necessity, or a desperate need for good PR in the West. And that, they say, will determine whether the ground-breaking measure is a one-off gesture or the start of long-desired reforms.

Under the Sept. 27 edict, the new policy is to be reviewed by a ministerial committee and is to be enforced by June 24, 2018, a few days after the Eid holiday. Critically, a male guardian or relative will neither be required for women to receive a driver’s license nor be present as a passenger for women to drive.

The edict refers to a woman’s right to drive as in line with social and religious norms; indeed, no Islamic religious authority except for the hardline Wahhabi clerics, upon whom the House of Saud relies for legitimacy, had attempted to use Islam as an excuse to ban women from driving.

Economic benefit

The move to allow women to drive feeds into Saudi Arabia’s narrative of reform under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has announced plans to introduce tourism, social activities, and entertainment in the traditionally closed kingdom. But observers say a major factor behind the move is certainly economic.

The ban has been a major barrier to Saudi women entering the workforce. Public transportation in the kingdom is extremely limited, forcing families to hire private chauffeurs.

Saudi families hire an estimated 800,000 imported chauffeurs, mainly from South Asia, to drive female relatives around. Others use ride-sharing. Both are costly for middle-class families facing the squeeze of austerity measures and cuts in subsidies due to lower oil prices.

“Having a driving ban was becoming economically prohibitive for some working women. It made little economic sense to continue working if that meant they had to pay for a driver,” says Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Saudi Embassy in the US who does not speak on behalf of the Saudi government.

The crown prince’s Vision 2030 roadmap to make the kingdom less dependent on oil, calls for lower unemployment and for women’s participation in the workforce to increase from 22 percent currently to 30 percent by 2030. Oil accounts for nearly half of the kingdom’s gross domestic product and is forecast to run out in 70 years.

Lifting the ban is also bound to create additional economic opportunities for Saudis. Women driving instructors, administrators, and perhaps traffic cops will be needed, while the departure of foreign chauffeurs will open up opportunities for Saudi drivers – men and women – with ride-sharing companies such as Kareem and Uber.

Sure enough, the responses in Saudi social media have been overwhelmingly positive.

One man, one vision

One of the major factors that may have determined the timing of the royal decree is the man behind it.

Saudi Arabia has long been ruled by a committee, the royal family cautiously and carefully considering each issue. It’s a system that led the kingdom to move slowly on reforms, and at times be completely averse to change.

Western diplomats in Riyadh say Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, because of his closeness to his father, King Salman, and his unprecedented control of economic, military, and security portfolios, is “ruling the country in all but title.”

“Under the crown prince, it has been more centralized than ever; he has accumulated unprecedented power,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “With centralized power, the crown prince can push through reform, whatever his motives are.”

Mohammed bin Salman, who in two years rose from anonymity to the heir in waiting, has not only been able to neutralize his opponents within the royal family, but has also curbed the powers of religious authorities unpopular with the public, such as the morality police.

“In the past, Saudi kings have recognized the costs of continuing the policy of not allowing women the right to drive, but they were not willing to take the criticism from the conservative circles,” says Gregory Gause, professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Mohammed bin Salman just doesn’t care.”

Publicity move?

The decision to lift the ban could not have come at a better time for the kingdom, which has been bogged down in a war in Yemen with no end in sight. The war has left 7 million people on the brink of starvation – one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in the world – and stirred up opposition in the international community, including among Riyadh’s closest allies and arms suppliers

In June, a vote to block US arms sales to Saudi Arabia was a few votes short of passing in Congress; Britain’s government has been under public and opposition pressure to end arms sales to Saudi over potential war crimes; while Canada has pledged to review such sales to Saudi Arabia after Canadian-made armored vehicles were used by Saudi forces to lay siege to a Shiite village Awamiyah in the kingdom’s Eastern province of Qatif.

“They feel that they are under fire, Yemen war is disaster, Vision 2030 by all accounts is sputtering – I think they probably felt that they needed good news,” says Adam Coogle, a Middle East specialist at Human Rights Watch.

Many clerics have come out in support of the end of the ban. But others who have found themselves at odds with Mohammed bin Salman and his vision have increasingly found themselves out of a job or in jail.

A week before the decree, 20 prominent Saudi clerics and activists were detained alone. It is part of a two-month crackdown that has seen dozens of leading clerics, journalists, writers, academics, and human rights activists arrested in recent weeks.

Classic bait-and-switch?

“It is clear that the new leadership under Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman is sending a chilling message: freedom of expression will not be tolerated, we are coming after you,” Amnesty International said in a statement in September.

The crackdown may be coming at a time that the prince, far from a liberal or a democrat, is looking to assume the throne and aiming to silence opposition once and for all. Lifting the driving ban may be the perfect distraction for the international community as the crackdown deepens, longtime observers say.

“You can argue this is a classic case of bait-and-switch; it is a classic authoritarian game where you have a bright shiny object of women’s liberation which appeals to Western audiences, meanwhile you are cracking down on dissent,” says Carnegie’s Mr. Wehrey. “It was staged very effectively.”

Observers say a more open Saudi society and tightened autocratic rule are not incompatible; in fact, they may go hand in hand as Riyadh looks to push through reforms despite the concerns of clerics, royal family members, and some more conservative members of society.

“Mohammed bin Salman clearly wants a more open society in terms of the public sphere and women in the workforce, but he is no liberal in the political sense. He doesn’t want an open sphere and free speech,” says Professor Gause.

“There is no contradiction between the ambitious agenda that [the prince] has set up for himself and the crackdowns; I think they go together," he adds.

Rollback or reform?

If the international community is weighing the value of a trade-off between women’s rights and respect for human rights and free speech, rights activists say governments and organizations must take a wait-and-see approach.

The driving ban is several months from being lifted, and it may be altered before being put into force. Rights activists remain concerned that authorities may amend it; such as implementing a curfew banning women from driving at night, only allowing women with work contracts to get behind the wheel, or raising the age limit of driving from 18 to 30.

Then there is the guardianship system, legal codes that require Saudi women to get permission from a male relative to travel, obtain a passport, enter a hospital, or sign a work contract. There have been hints that the kingdom may be willing to amend or drop the system entirely. But rights advocates say the kingdom has to go beyond a royal edict and enact legislation to dismantle the discriminatory system.

“It is not enough for the government to say that it is not our fault for social discrimination, they must step in and end discriminatory practice through legislation,” Mr. Coogle of Human Rights Watch says.

The kingdom has signaled it may be prepared to part with the system. Last month, King Salman issued a royal decree making it harder to enforce the guardianship system.

Another, less-reported royal edict came two days after the driving ban decree, instructing the interior ministry to draft legislation to criminalize sexual harassment – another potential win for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s king-appointed advisory body, also voted for a measure granting Saudi women greater influence in religious affairs.

These are “positive” signs from the House of Saud, say multiple Saudi activists, asking not to be named amid the ongoing crackdown.

“The reverse of the driving ban is an important first step,” says one. “But only time will tell if this is lip-service to the international community, or the start of long-needed reforms in the kingdom.”

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