In a statement posted on his personal website, Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud called for the end of the prohibition on driving for Saudi women. “Preventing a woman from driving is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity.” The Saudi royal and businessman saw what much of the world has seen for quite some time: that the calls for more improvements and independence for Saudi women is just another wave of change sweeping across the Gulf countries reflected in the slowed growth of the once strong oil-based economies.
For human rights activists and civil society leaders in the region, the call to allow women to drive reflects universal norms and the global movement from international organizations to push women’s rights forward around the world. The driving prohibition has been mocked on social media and international fora particularly over the last decade as an indication that despite Saudi Arabia’s economic strength, it still enforces antiquated laws particularly against women that are often bolstered by controversial imams and their fatwas.
Saudi Arabia’s rulers and lawmakers are walking a difficult balancing act between preserving perceived traditional Arab culture and the need to diversity Saudi’s economy. The International Monetary Fund noted in 2014 that economic diversification for GCC countries away from oil dependence would be difficult but necessary in order to maintain current levels of revenue. Since the governments of the GCC control the oil industry in their respective countries, they are responsible for the distribution of wealth among nationals throughout their countries. And since the oil industry and public sector overall relies heavily on low-wage workers from foreign countries, “it is becoming increasingly expensive for the public sector to employ nationals” who desire more high-paid jobs often after returning with their Western university degrees. Oil revenue are not expected to increase drastically, so it is important that the GCC diversity their economies and encourage private sector development.
Saudi Vision 2030 is expected to provide the roadmap for doing just this. In the Vision 2030 plan Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Alsaud calls for an ambitious plan to diversify the economy and improve the livelihoods of Saudi citizens. “We are determined to reinforce and diversify the capabilities of our economy, turning our key strengths into enabling tools for a fully diversified future.” As part of the “Thriving Economy” theme, the Vision calls for harnessing the talents and skills of Saudi women by increasing their participation in the economy from 22% to 30% by the year 2030.
The call by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal reflected these concerns about economic diversification and potential stagnation and not so much in terms of women’s rights and the desire for “modernity.” The primary emphasis on economic improvement while simultaneously confirming that allowing women to drive (within particular guidelines) can still ensure the safety and dignity of Saudi women and the security of the Saudi family, which is considered the foundation of the society. Not only does Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal discuss how cutting out the need for Saudi-based foreign drivers would save families money and ensure their revenues are not remitted back to the home countries of the drivers, he highlights that it will open jobs for Saudi themselves, including for women. In this manner, he believes this is beginning to address the issue of hiring Saudis in the public sector which is generally occupied by the expatriate workers.
Last year in August 2016, it was reported that Deputy Prince Mohammed Bin Salman seemed to think Saudi society was not ready for such change. “Women driving is not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it.” It is this very reason that Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal mentioned in his letter that it would not be compulsory for families to get rid of their drivers, but rather an option for families to consider.
Just this month, Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) much to the shock of Western nations and human rights activists. There’s no doubt that this step for Saudi Arabia represents a step toward altering their image globally, particularly when it comes to women’s rights. The CSW is not made up of only Western countries with what might be termed ‘developed’ women’s rights. Instead what we find is a mixture of representation from Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East because the purpose of the CSW is to adopt “multi-year work programmes to appraise progress and make further recommendations to accelerate the implementation of the Platform for Action.”
As with most change in the region, allowing women to drive is not something that can be forced by outside actors–whether or Western or native–but something that has to be gradually accepted within the society. Having prominent leaders in the country publically express interest in and even support for allowing women to drive is a step in the right direction for female drives in Saudi Arabia, but the change will happen on Saudi’s own terms.