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A big step forward, and another step back in Saudi Arabia

The public role of women in Saudi life has expanded rapidly over the past decade, accented last month by lifting a ban on women driving. But as the Kingdom moves forward on some rights, it is regressing with regards to others — particularly, cracking down on political dissidents.

By Thomas W. Lippman

A Saudi woman driving (Screenshot from Change.org)

A Saudi woman driving (Screenshot from Change.org)

So, with its decision to let women drive, is Saudi Arabia finally modernizing its oppressive rules of social behavior and relaxing its tight restrictions on political and social life? Yes and no.

Economic necessity and the realities of the modern workplace are forcing changes that to Westerners look like progress, including the dramatic announcement this week that women will be permitted to drive, beginning next year. But it is also clear that any form of political or organizational activity that appears to challenge the ruling monarchy or Islamic orthodoxy is not permitted, as evidenced by the arrests of politically suspect individuals the week before.

In a way, Saudi Arabia is the China of the Middle East. Economic dynamism is encouraged, and plenty of people who have nothing to do with the oil industry are getting rich, but ideological dynamism is suppressed.

The decision on driving

The decision to let women drive has long appeared inevitable. It came about not because some new-generation prince had a humanitarian inspiration but because it was necessary if the government hopes to achieve its ambitious economic goals. More women than men are graduating from Saudi Arabia’s universities and entering the work force, and the government—encouraging the growth of the private-sector economy—has been trying to expand employment opportunities for them. They cannot fill jobs they cannot get to, and public transportation is limited. Uber and other ride-hailing services are popular, but many women are uncomfortable giving their phone numbers and addresses to—and riding in cars with—total strangers, mostly from other countries.

“The issue of women driving was never a religious or a cultural issue, said Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s youthful ambassador to the United States. A son of King Salman and younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the driving force behind the kingdom’s economic plan known as Vision 2030, the ambassador is part of the new generation of princes rising to prominence in the kingdom.

“The majority of the members of the Council of Senior Scholars in the Kingdom agree that Islam does not ban women from driving. This was a societal issue,” he said. “Today, we have a young and vibrant society and the time had come to make this move.

Over the course of our 87-year history as a nation, change and progress has been a constant.  And today, through Vision2030, that change is moving at an even greater pace, in line with our religion and values,  as we pursue our vision for a vibrant society with strong roots, a thriving economy less dependent on oil and an ambitious nation that can responsibly contribute to the security and prosperity of the world around us.”

The public role of women in Saudi life has expanded rapidly over the past decade. Women are now permitted to vote, and to run as candidates, in municipal elections. They hold 20 percent of the 150 seats in the Consultative Assembly, a sort of appointed parliament. Earlier this month women were allowed to enter the national soccer stadium for the first time, not to see a game but to participate in National Day celebrations. The authority of the so-called religious police, who terrified women by sternly questioning their behavior and attire in public places, has been curtailed. Women are now permitted to work in retail establishments and in other jobs formerly closed to them, although segregation by sex in the workplace is still widely enforced and women are still required to wear the covering black cloak known as the abaya when outside their homes. A recent law authorizing the creation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for social welfare activities is expected to augment job opportunities for women.

The king’s decree ending the prohibition on driving also ordered the creation of an inter-ministerial committee to write implementing regulations by next June. There are still questions to be answered: Will there be female traffic cops? Who will administer the driving-license test to women? And given Saudi Arabia’s appalling rate of road accidents, what will happen when a car driven by a woman collides with one driven by a man, or runs down a male pedestrian?

One side benefit of the driving change is likely to be an improvement in Saudi Arabia’s dismal reputation in the West on issues of human rights and individual freedom. But as has happened so often in Saudi Arabia’s modern history, advances on that front are undermined by the absence of political freedom.

Crackdown elsewhere

Earlier this month, at least 17 and possibly as many as 40 people, including two popular but controversial religious preachers, were thrown into jail. They face an uncertain fate in the kingdom’s harsh and often arbitrary legal system. According to the French scholar Stephane Lacroix, the “several dozen” who were rounded up were public figures in one way or another but have little in common except that they have not taken positions on Saudi Arabia’s destructive feud with neighboring Qatar.

Human Rights Watch said that “authorities have arrested dozens of people, including prominent clerics, in what appears to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent…These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammad bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law. Saudis’ alleged efforts to tackle extremism are all for show if all the government does is jail people for their political views.”

Probably the best-known of those arrested is Salman al-Auda, a preacher, writer and blogger on Islamic affairs who argued that Islam does not permit theocracy and was imprisoned for his views in the 1990s. A profile of him in The New York Times some years ago noted that he has “broad appeal, in a passionately religious country where most clerics are government-paid flunkies.” He and another popular cleric arrested, Awad al-Qarni, both have millions of followers on Twitter, but Qarni was recently banned from tweeting.

The government has not announced specific charges against those arrested, but according to news reports from the region they are believed to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the international organization that Saudi Arabia deems a terrorist group.

In prison they join a long roster of political dissidents, critics of the royal family, and people locked up on vague charges for activities supposedly related to terrorism. Collectively, they represent an enduring reality in the kingdom: the law is what the king and his enforcers say it is, and sometimes the only way to learn where the line has been drawn is to step over it and find out the hard way.

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S.-Saudi relations. This article was first published in Lobelog.com.

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