Saudi Arabia must adapt to thrive – no wonder Saudi women are driving at last

Ready to roll. EPA/STR

Until now, Saudi women could run major businesses, but they couldn’t drive a car in their own country. Yet as of June 24 2018, they finally have the right to take the wheel. This is clearly a victory for Saudi women, and for the progressives who championed this cause – but there’s more to it than that.

Saudi Arabia’s rigid social and religious norms have certainly softened in recent years, but what’s really new is an effort to develop and diversify the economy. The Saudi government has outlined its plans to do that in the form of Vision 2030, a compendium of policies and programmes that will turn Saudi Arabia’s oil-centric economy into something far more modern: an economy where social development and economic development go hand-in-hand.

The intended effects of lifting the ban can be divided into two categories: direct internal ones, and indirect international ones.

On the home front, it would be extremely difficult to transform the Saudi economy and achieve the goals mentioned above without Saudi women driving. Many Saudi women regularly can’t get to their workplaces if there’s no man available to drive them; if they can reliably get themselves to work, they will be more productive.

In addition, Saudi Arabia’s oil-based economy depends heavily on immigration and foreign labour. According to a report by Arab News in late 2017, there were 11m foreign workers in Saudi Arabia; 2.3m of them domestic workers, mostly maids and drivers. As of now, women will no longer need to employ a non-Saudi male driver – and that will help with the 2030 goal of “increasing household savings from 6% to 10%”.

To make this happen, the government has employed an interesting tactic. In May 2018, it announced harsh new punishments for any kind of sexual harassment. That announcement was certainly aimed at men, but not just the perpetrators of assault that the government says it wants to deter. Instead, the new penalties are meant to soften up the male heads of Saudi families, many of whom are very reluctant to see their mothers, sisters and daughters driving.

Saudi conservatives generally invoke the possibility of harassment to justify why women shouldn’t drive. It seems the Saudi ruling elite are trying to balance social conservatism and practical concerns; they understand that there are still conservatives that may not want women to drive, but they also know that there is little choice but to let them if they want vision 2030 to succeed, and if they want to thrive.

And this isn’t just a strategy to ease the domestic situation. It’s also a concession to the realities of dealing with the outside world.

Opening up

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and the architect behind Vision 2030, knows very well that Saudi Arabia cannot attract the foreign investment it needs without significant and conspicuous social change. Lifting the ban is a signal that Saudi Arabia is open for business. Not only does it encourage foreign investment – especially from foreign female entrepreneurs – but it means that business with Saudi Arabia will no longer carry quite the same stigma.

The writing’s on the wall: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. EPA/Yuri Kadobnov

The driving ban was constantly invoked to criticise any state or company who did business in Saudi Arabia, or who seriously considered investing there. Although critics can use other issues to demonise Saudi Arabia, lifting the ban will certainly relieve some pressure.

Tellingly, the Saudi religious establishment unanimously got behind the decision to end the ban, clearly understanding that some degree of change is inevitable. It’s a signal that a more “moderate” form of Islam is on the rise in this notoriously conservative society. The once-powerful religious police will have to play a less significant role in public life, as they no longer have the political backing they did in past years. A more “moderate” Muslim state will be a more welcoming place for tourists – and by the same token, a more welcoming place to spend money.

Even with all the important caveats about the enduring limits on Saudi women’s lives, this is undeniably a victory for women and progressives. And whatever the precise motive for lifting the ban, it cannot be ignored that the social fabric of Saudi society is changing.