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27 September 2017

I never thought I’d see Saudi Arabia let women drive – let’s hope it actually happens

Despite years of disapointment there are promising signs things might actually change.

By Nesrine Malik

Late on Tuesday night, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree finally allowing the country’s women to drive, applicable in the summer of 2018. I never thought I would see the day in my lifetime. There really is no hyperbole when it comes to expressing just how much of a big deal this is. Not only on a practical level, but in terms of the social and political transformation it potentially heralds. 

The promise of a country on the cusp of liberalisation has been made and broken so many times recently, that I doubt if many expected this to happen. Saudi Arabia had become adept at managing optics. In 2014 for example, a human rights “rebrand” launched with the help of a UK PR firm and much media fanfare, sought to show that the country had conceded to the UN’s demands on almost two hundred human concerns. Upon closer inspection however, the report contained a great deal of language that sounded like kicking the human rights can further down the road. Lots of “in principles” and “under reviews” and “holistic approaches”. And the two main issues, male guardianship and the ban on women driving, were not tackled head on.

Saudi authorities have a way of making big pronouncements then bogging them down in procedures and reviews. In May of this year, King Salman issued a decree allowing women to receive services without consent from a male guardian in what sounded effectively like a suspension of the male guardianship law. It was a huge step. But again, in application it was a damp squib. 

These caveats are a defence mechanism built up after sore disappointments, and yet this feels different. It feels different because the decree was dedicated only to lifting the ban, released to create as much media impact as possible, and more importantly, stated that it was effective immediately. An additional comfort is that Saudi officials, including the Saudi ambassador in the US, said that the issuing of licenses will not be subject to male guardians’ approval. Although rollout will take months after a review by a committee of senior ministers, it is more likely that this is a way to ensure that the infrastructure, both hard and soft, is ready, rather than an obfuscatory measure.

There is plenty of room for derailment. The words “in accordance with Islamic laws” make me nervous. They carry too much potential for a limiting of the right to drive to certain conditions that would render the whole process prohibitive. It’s also important to note that the original ban was not on women driving but on issuing licenses because the infrastructure was not in place. That sort of technical chicanery is still possible. The religious establishment of clerics and ulema on which the Saudi royal family always pinned slow social reform, still hold sway. And the country is still very conservative in organic, deep seated ways not imposed by the government or the clergy. There might well be resistance on behalf of Saudis themselves. In response to the overhaul of the guardian system, a group of Saudi women launched a counter campaign called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me”.

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Nevertheless early signs are promising. An Arabic twitter hashtag “The women of my house will not drive” started trending only because it was hijacked by Saudi women and their supporters making fun of the meltdown some men were having. There is also the possibility that this will become a flashpoint between the royal family and the clergy – a prominent few of which have been arrested recently. 

But there are also a host of other political climate changes that might provide the wind in the sails of the change. Saudi Arabia’s new regime, steered informally by the recently appointed Mohamed bin Salman, seems serious about, in a self-preserving way, streamlining the affairs of a bloated and profligate royal family, and raising the country’s global social profile, burnished by Trump’s visit earlier in the year. Saudi’s conflict with Qatar has also strained and weakened its relationship with notable members of the religious establishment who refused to condemn Qatar and by proxy its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi kingdom’s regional nemesis, in strong enough terms. 

And of course there are the women. The women who have been thrown in prison, barred from travel, sacked from their jobs, socially stigmatised, denounced from mosque pulpits and forced into exile over the years. Those that since the first protest in 1990 in Riyadh, have been a thorn in the side of the authorities by regularly taking to the road, suffering the consequences and bringing global shame to the country. They clearly were not going to be deterred by draconian punishment and social censure. If the Saudi regime intends to appease its young in a time of low oil prices, fast emptying coffers, and a culture war with Qatar, the constant embarrassment meted out by Saudi women uploading their arrests for driving in social media is best avoided. Whether disappointment is to follow or not, this is a solid win for them. It is hard to see how this genie can be coaxed back into the bottle.

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