On Tuesday 26 September, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a historic royal decree allowing women the right to drive vehicles for the first time from June 2018. The breakthrough move was met with joy and celebrations among activists and women’s rights supporters who have long protested the ban.

While the decree marks a fundamental milestone in women’s rights and activism, it reflects the Saudi Kingdom’s wider modernisation project and a much-needed effort to present a more desirable international reputation.

Mapping the road to justice

While a formal, written ban on women driving has never existed, until now Saudi law has permitted local driving licenses to be issued to men only, thereby making it illegal for women to drive. Rights activists in the Saudi Kingdom have been protesting this inequality for almost three decades.

In November 1990, a historic public protest saw almost 50 women, including several academics, take to the streets of Riyadh and drive through the Saudi capital until they were stopped by police. Some of the women were fired from their government jobs, banned from foreign travel for a year along with their husbands and drivers, and publicly denounced in society.

In 2011, Manal al-Sharif, 32, a prominent women’s rights activist and organiser of the Women2Drive campaign, filmed and shared a YouTube video of herself driving, resulting in her detention and imprisonment. Sharif was filmed by well-known activist and writer Wajeha Al-Huwaider, who had also filmed herself behind the wheel in 2007.

Similarly, in 2014, 25-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested for driving into Saudi Arabia from the UAE, and was also detained earlier this year. The defiance of these women is regarded as being central to the social media campaigns against the driving ban, which have critically drawn both domestic and international attention to the issue.

The Saudi royals have indeed submitted to increasing pressure in recent years, granting women the right to vote and run for local elections in 2015, in which almost 1000 women ran for seats. The move was hailed as a significant victory for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, despite challenges such as problems in standing for election or registering to vote. For example, many women faced difficulties in proving their identity and residence as their male “guardians” could prevent them from accessing necessary documents.

Latuff cartoon of Saudi woman driving
Women’s rights activists have been acknowledged as key exponents of the change in legislation. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons/Latuff.

Only a few days before the decree was announced, Saudi women were allowed into the King Fahd Stadium for the first time as the country celebrated its 87th anniversary, marking another milestone achievement for women’s rights and access in public space. And the protest has not stopped there – Saudi feminists and human rights groups are seizing upon this opportune moment to continue the push for fundamental rights. Wide-reaching calls have been made to abolish the archaic guardianship system; adopted from a particular jurist reading of Islam, in which women require the permission of a male guardian to travel, marry, or engage in other everyday activities.

Vision 2030 – the pathway to reform

The end of the driving ban reflects a desire for profound societal change, which goes hand in hand with the kingdom’s vision for modernisation and economic reform. In 2016, the Saudi Kingdom launched Vision 2030, an ambitious economic plan comprising a set of programs and strategic policies intended to diversify the oil-dependent economy and boost investment in the private sector.

This neoliberal economic model is now turning to women to drive both cars and economic growth. The transformation envisioned by the Saudi royals is to engage women and their labour in the economy, and by extension, to solve high levels of unemployment with a clampdown on the employment of foreign workers, who are thought to account for more than 50% of the overall labour force.

While critics have denounced the move as nothing more than a public relations stunt and a simple necessity in order to demonstrate political flexibility in return for international recognition, others have viewed the lifting of the ban as the first tentative steps towards freedom; noting how women have finally been taken into consideration and form a fundamental part of the wider vision to transform Saudi society. Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, sees the declaration as a PR move triggered by the work of women activists.

She described the decree as “a good step” that will improve the lives of women as well as the Saudi economy, yet a move which is more about the consolidation of political power than granting women greater autonomy. However, several women activists were silenced on the day of the announcement. They were asked not to comment on the decision, whether positive or negative; indicating a desire to allow only the institutional voice to be heard on the kingdom’s crucial step towards modernisation, and to remove activists from the discourse.

Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud talk
The US-Saudi relation could become key in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project as it pushes towards embrace of the free market. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Wider responses and reactions

In a similar vein, Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), painted the decree as an attempt to avert attention from the political failures of King Salman, citing the co-optation of women’s struggle as an age-old political tactic. In the past few weeks, more than 30 activists, religious scholars and professionals have been detained, while the kingdom’s regional policies in Yemen have been at the centre of bad publicity and potential UN investigation.

“So why would an absolute monarchy with virtually no freedom of speech, independent civil society, political parties, elected national assembly, representative government or licensed feminist movement suddenly promote women and even allow them to drive in the last country on the planet where such a thing had been banned?”

– Madawi al-Rasheed, LSE

Additionally, winning the backing of US President Donald Trump has been the key achievement of the Saudi leadership, according to Rasheed. The lifting of the driving ban seems therefore to arrive at a particularly timely moment in which international image and upkeep of US endorsement is much needed.

Of course, it is expected that the US will be a vital partner in the Saudi Kingdom’s privatisation efforts. Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya reported on Richard Branson’s recent visit to the country, who referred to Saudi Arabia as “a country where great change is taking place step by step”, endorsing “the new Saudi vision” and sharing travel photos in his recent Virgin blog post.

A victory nonetheless

It might seem evident that lifting the driving ban has more to do with the transition into a neoliberal economy and keeping political partners and potential investors onside.

Yet the very real implications will be felt by Saudi women, who will gain greater access to the labour market. Their new-found freedom on the roads will also be savoured, while activists and rights groups will embrace this platform to propel the continued protests for fundamental rights.

The horizon for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia certainly looks a little brighter, yet Saudi Arabia has a long way yet before women (and men) are granted full, fundamental civil and political rights; which would likely pose a threat to the kingdom’s rulers.

The right to drive is merely the tip of an iceberg for feminist demands and women’s rights, and while not enough in activist circles, it may well be a move that will satisfy King Salman’s target audience: his international partners.

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