Saudi women permitted to drive — what does it mean?

Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz’s decree to allow women to hold driving licences from June 2018 has come as something of a surprise. No leaks, trial balloons or statements were issued to signal that the decision was imminent.

But the text of the king’s decree also shows that he believes change must be controlled, and must be initiated from the top, rather than coming from the bottom upwards.

The powerful young heir to the throne, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, is almost certainly behind the move, which should be seen in the context of the government’s Vision 2030 economic reform blueprint. The global headlines that the announcement prompted are welcome good publicity at a time when much of Riyadh’s regional policy is under scrutiny. And, by happy coincidence, it came just as Saudi Arabia launched a dollar-denominated bond sale. It might be a move with more prosaic budgetary benefits.

Crown prince Mohammad’s younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, who is Riyadh’s ambassador to the US, explains how the monarchy wants the world to view its decision to finally permit women to drive. “Saudi Arabia is changing. We have dynamic leadership. We are implementing our Vision 2030 initiative through which we are empowering women and youth to play a greater role in the Saudi economy,” he says.

The late King Abdullah hinted almost a decade ago that the time had come to allow women to drive, but conservative elements in the powerful clerical establishment objected vociferously, and the idea was dropped. The late king obviously did not have the appetite for a tussle with the conservative clerics over allowing women to drive, although he did put his foot down when they objected to the desegregated environment at Aramco’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in 2009.

So Prince Khalid’s claim that “the issue of women driving was never a religious or a cultural issue”, does not quite ring true.

“In fact, 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. Today, we have a young and vibrant society and the time had come to make this move,” the prince says.

Strictly speaking, he is right. There is nothing in Islamic teachings that prevents women from driving. But Saudi Arabia’s clerical and ruling establishments have from the very inception of the Saudi state adopted a strict, austere interpretation of Islam under which they imposed segregation of the sexes and prevented Saudi women from enjoying many of the freedoms that women in other parts of the world have taken for granted. And since the ruling family has always relied on its alliance with the religious establishment to bolster its legitimacy, it has rarely crossed swords with it, particularly on sensitive issues.

The decision to allow women to drive shows that the king, and his son and heir crown prince Mohammad — who could become king soon if his father abdicates in his favour, as is widely expected — are committed to accelerating the pace of economic and social change in the country, and are willing to carry the clerical establishment with them. This may involve taming some of its more hardline elements. A preacher who recently described women as having less than half a brain has been arrested.

So women are to be allowed to drive “within the limits of religious law”. This may mean many things. For example, women may not be allowed to drive if they are the only person in the vehicle, to ensure their own safety in a society where women’s activities in public remain controlled. A woman may be prohibited from driving a vehicle with unrelated male passengers if not accompanied by a male relative. And women may be required to have the approval of their male guardians in order to obtain driving licences. None of this is clear yet. The king has tasked a committee comprising different ministries with drafting a proposal on implementing the decision and reporting back to him within 30 days.

Moreover, the decision to allow women to drive is not a signal that liberalisation on all fronts is the order of the day in Saudi Arabia. Economic liberalisation is definitely on the cards, and a limited degree of social liberalisation — in the shape of women drivers or plans to set up an entertainment and leisure industry — is to go ahead.

But freedom of speech does not seem to be one of the areas where more official openness and tolerance can be expected. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. At least 30 people who have mildly questioned or not openly supported the government’s policies regarding relations with Qatar and Riyadh’s planned economic reforms have been arrested. Not all of them are hardline clerics. They include at least one economist as well as political commentators and writers. The message is clear — change and the pace at which it occurs will be decided upon at the very top, with implementation decisions handed down.

Does having women drivers alter the outlook for gasoline demand growth in Saudi Arabia? Saudi gasoline sales grew by just 0.6pc last year, compared with an average 5pc over the previous three years. If all that happens is that large numbers of expatriate drivers employed by middle class families are fired because women will be able to drive themselves around, rather than be back-seat passengers, demand may not be much affected. But private consumption has been weak in the country, prompting the reversal of public sector pay cuts, and raising the possibility that a further removal of costly fuel subsidies would have to be delayed. If households dump expatriate drivers, the consequent savings will provide disposable income that can then be spent on higher priced motor fuels, maintaining sales, saving the government money, and forestalling popular complaint.

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