Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday that women will finally be allowed to drive, starting in June of next year.
It’s hard to underestimate the symbolic power of this royal decree. The issue of women driving has long been a cultural litmus test in Saudi Arabia, which is among the most religiously conservative Islamic countries in the world. Allowing women to drive has divided its conservative religious establishment, which controls pretty much every aspect of Saudi society, from more liberal Saudi elites, including a good chunk of the vast royal family.
Women driving themselves aren’t just symbolic — they’re also part of a larger social transformation going on in Saudi society that is arguably the most important in almost half a century. Mina Al-Oraibi, the editor in chief of The National, a leading English language newspaper in the Middle East, explains, “This decision tips the balance for Saudi women and there is no going back. Of course, other issues remain, but this was the most evident and impacted everyday life for all women, from mothers wanting to take their kids to school, to women considering entering the workforce.”
Nadia Oweidat, an assistant professor at Kansas State University and fellow at New America who tracks social media in the Arab world, says that within minutes of the news on Tuesday, “the Arabic hashtag #The_King_Supports_Women_Driving was trending. Not long after though, the hashtag #The_People_Refuse_Women_Driving also appeared … full of Wahhabi sheikhs predicting [that] this is the end of Saudi.”
The decision to let women drive marks an important reversal of decades of policies that took Saudi Arabia in a more conservative direction culturally. As a result of observing Shiite militants overthrowing the secularist Shah of Iran in 1979 and also Sunni ultrafundamentalists assaulting the holy mosque in Mecca the same year, the Saudi monarchy embraced even more tightly the Saudi religious establishment, closing, for instance, the few movie theaters in the kingdom.
Since then Saudi Arabia has been ruled by a series of elderly kings who have maintained tight relations with the Wahhabi religious establishment that has defined Arabia since the first Saudi kingdom, which was established in 1744.
Now it looks like there’s growing potential for change. There is a new Sharif in town and he is Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, the 32-year old son of the 81-year old King Salman. The time is ripe for such changes because Saudi Arabia is a very young country right now; 70% of the population is under 30.
MBS, as Mohammed bin Salman is universally known in the Saudi kingdom, and his father have already clipped the wings of the feared religious police who long patrolled the streets looking for supposed malefactors. Since 2016 the religious police no longer have the power to arrest suspects and can only report them to regular police units.
The Saudi monarchy has also allowed some music concerts to happen in the kingdom, the first in decades.
Earlier this month, hundreds of women mingled with men for the first time at a stadium in the capital Riyadh, celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the Saudi kingdom. There were even impromptu parties later that night where men danced on the street in proximity to women. This would be tame stuff in Manhattan, but it is very dramatic for Riyadh.
These social changes show that MBS and King Salman are “signaling that they are determined to reform society and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” says Ali Shihabi, the executive director of the Washington-based think tank Arabia Foundation, who is close to Saudi officials.
MBS has proven to be a formidable player of bare-knuckle politics. He and his father removed his cousin, the previous Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Nayef, as the Saudi heir apparent in a bloodless coup in June.
It is widely believed that the octogenarian King Salman will step down relatively soon, allowing the 32-year-old MBS to become absolute monarch.
Betting on MBS is one of the few clear wins that Jared Kushner, and by extension his father-in law, President Trump, have had in the foreign policy sphere. Kushner cultivated MBS and invited him to the White House early in the Trump presidency. Together they organized President Trump’s first foreign trip as President to Saudi Arabia in May, where Trump was given the most royal of welcomes.
An economic revolution?
MBS is also attempting to revolutionize the Saudi economy. Given the decline in oil prices and the fact that the Saudi economy is almost totally dependent on oil, something clearly needed to be done.
MBS has proposed what is known as “Vision 2030,” which is an ambitious effort to wean Saudis off oil and their almost total dependence on government (by which 70% of the population is employed). They pay no taxes and also receive free education and health care as well as receiving subsidies for water, gas and electricity.
This model is unsustainable and if it keeps up, the International Monetary Fund estimated in 2015 that the Saudi economy would run out of financial reserves in five years, which is why MBS has been moving so quickly to try to change things.
He faces some formidable obstacles, however. Taxing Saudis is a nonstarter and cutting bonuses and benefits for government officials proved deeply unpopular and was reversed in April.
The government did reduce subsidies for gas and water and also plans to raise funds from the sale of the giant oil company, Aramco, which could be worth as much as a trillion dollars.
MBS’ plans for both Saudi society and its economy are quite ambitious and the decree allowing women to drive, while many are questioning what its full impact will be, is still a hugely symbolic part of this effort.