Why did Saudi Arabia lift the driving ban on women only now?

Al-Khamri, Al Jazeera, june 24, 2018

The Saudi
regime still gets to decide which rights women should be afforded.
A Saudi
woman gestures as she sits in a car during a driving training at a university
in Jeddah [Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser]

today, women in Saudi Arabia
are finally able to drive legally after a long-standing ban was lifted by a
royal decree.

unexpected decision to finally allow women to drive has been welcomed and
praised by human rights
campaigners across the world since it was first
in September last year.
But there
is still one question on many people’s mind: Why did King Salman agree to do
this, and why now?
decades, the royal family – including Salman before he became king – has
maintained unjust laws and patriarchal gender norms hurting women’s
. In 1990, it was King Salman who, as a governor of Riyadh,
oversaw the harsh punishment of 47 women who participated in a major
driving-ban protest.
All these
years neither the king, nor his son and now Crown Prince Mohammed bin
(MBS), spoke out against this repressive system or supported
women who were fighting against it.
So did
King Salman or his son have suddenly become committed feminists or gender
equality advocates? Or are there other reasons behind this move?
patriarchy and women’s complicity
Arabia is an absolute monarchy. The king is the head of state, head of
government, supreme commander of the armed forces and head of the
Shura Council (the advisory council). State legislation is based on royal
decrees and the royal family dominates almost every aspect of political and
economic life in the country.
system has stripped Saudi women of the rights that most Muslim women elsewhere
enjoy. A woman in Saudi Arabia is legally treated as a minor from cradle to
grave; she needs the consent of a male guardian to be able to study, travel,
work, marry or obtain some official documents. A divorced or widowed mother is
subject to the guardianship of her own teenage son.
Despite the
grave injustices this system has resulted in, there have been some Saudi women
who throughout the years have openly supported it.
There are
some women, usually from privileged backgrounds, who wholeheartedly support the
Saudi regime and argue that the only real change should come from the king.
They are
supported and, sometimes, directly sponsored by the regime. While claiming that
they work for the advancement of Saudi women’s interests, they actively
contribute to the silencing of anyone who dares to criticise the way the regime
treats women.
example is Kawthar al-Arbash, an appointed member of the Shura Council, which
as a non-elected institution welcomed women for the first in 2013 under the late King
 (the move was part of a number of reforms in response
to the Arab Spring and did not reflect a genuine desire for the political
empowerment of women). Last year al-Arbash stirred anger and controversy on
Twitter when she called
upon those “who still reckon that Saudi women are persecuted, isolated,
deprived of progress, and have no empowerment opportunities [to] go back to the
cave and cover up well”.
There are
also some Saudi women who openly campaign against improvement of women’s rights
in the country. These women, who usually come from middle-class families, run
campaigns to protect the gender status-quo. They are driven by chauvinistic
ultra-nationalism and conservative religious sentiments.
In 2009,
one of these women, Rowdha al-Yousef, launched a campaign called “My Guardian
Knows What’s Best for Me
” to counter the calls to abolish the
male guardianship system. The supporters of the campaign claimed that movements
aiming to liberate women in the kingdom are against Saudi/Islamic culture and
values. This group is not necessarily sponsored by the regime, but they are
offered platforms to spread their message. 
The women
who fought the driving ban are now in jail
public dissent is often suppressed in Saudi Arabia, there have been women who
have struggled against gender injustice and discrimination.
They have
been launching campaigns
and submitting petitions to the king to end the driving ban
and the male guardianship system for decades, but they have been neither
supported, nor heard.
When in
September 2016 activist Aziza al-Youssef went
to King Salman’s office to submit a petition to abolish the guardianship
system, it was not accepted. Instead, she was told to send it “by mail“.
that year, then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been
portraying himself as a reformist leader, told the Economist that Saudi has
only 18 percent of its adult women working because they are “not used to
“. Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi feminist and
anti-driving-ban activist, challenged his statement and described it as
“unfair of him to say” given the long waiting list of women seeking
employment in the education sector.
al-Youssef and al-Hathloul are now under arrest. They were rounded up along
with nine other women’s rights activists, both women and men, and were detained
for undermining the “security and stability” of the country since
last month. Nouf Abdulaziz, who has been working on gender-based violence
issues and advocating for prisoners of conscience and who is also part of this
group, left a heart-breaking letter to be released in case of her arrest. She wrote:
“I am not a provoker, inciter nor a wrecker, nor a terrorist, nor a
criminal or a traitor … I was never but only a good citizen that
loved my country and wished the best for it.”
this month, they detained two
more women’s rights advocates and imposed a travel ban on several others.
This type
of persecution is not new. Throughout the years, women’s rights activists have
been subjected to smear campaigns, have lost jobs, have been expelled from
universities, arrested and imprisoned and have had their passports confiscated.
That it
is continuing under the new “reformist-minded” Saudi leadership just
means that the Saudi regime still feels threatened by women activists
fighting for equality.
In this
sense, it is clear that what we are currently witnessing in Saudi Arabia is not
a genuine reform movement aimed at strengthening women’s rights.
Why was
the driving ban lifted?
The Saudi
leadership has rather pragmatic reasons to allow women to drive.
First of
all, the lifting of the driving ban is part of a plan to boost Saudi Arabia’s
economy and decrease government social provision. Low oil prices have
put a strain on the state budget and the authorities have had to cut government
jobs that many Saudis have long relied on.
The Saudi
authorities are now trying to push more citizens, including women, towards
private sector employment. They seem to believe that the lifting of the ban
would make it possible for more women to join the workforce and revitalise the
country’s economy in line with Vision 2030,
which aims to have women’s participation in the workforce at 30 percent by
there have been dramatic changes within the House of Saud in recent years which
had to be legitimised through a major PR campaign. Last year, Mohammed bin
Salman – then just 31-year-old – became crown
and embarked on major changes in Saudi domestic and foreign
After isolating and
opponents and critics, he worked on constructing an image
of himself as a charismatic popular leader within Saudi Arabia and abroad. He
decided to use the women’s rights issue as a tool to win over the hearts and
minds of young Saudis, as well as the kingdom’s foreign allies.
In other
words, the lifting of the driving ban is nothing more than a PR stunt and an
economic policy. This is why the leaders of Saudi Arabia refuse to involve
women’s rights activists in this process.
Even as
the regime pretends to reform the Saudi society, they continue to demand total
control over Saudi women. They want to give women “rights” only when
it fits their agenda. They have no tolerance for courageous women with free and
intellectual integrity who want genuine change and gender equality. This is why
they are still silencing, harassing and detaining women’s rights activists.
lifting of the driving ban is, of course, a positive development. But it is
important to understand that this is little more than a glitzy distraction, and
it is accompanied by human rights violations.
Salman is still the same man who harshly punished 47 women for defying the
driving ban. Mohammed bin Salman is still the same man that silenced his
critics and muzzled opposition to obtain power. The Saudi regime is still
persecuting women who campaign for real change.
women’s struggle for equality and the right for full citizenship is far from