This week, women were finally given the right to drive in Saudi Arabia. The news was widely reported all over the world and there were strangely fascinating pictures of Saudi women jumping in their cars looking jubilant.
Many spoke of it being a moment of history and felt it was empowering. And in many ways, they were right. The issue of women being unable to get behind the wheel had in recent years become a symbol of how repressed Saudi women were and women coalesced around the act of driving to organise and campaign. Women had been arrested for driving and even protesting about the right to drive. So, in many ways, this is progress.
But let’s be honest. Politics – whether it happens here at home or far away in a totally different country and culture like Saudi Arabia – is all about the spin and the man in charge. Don’t be fooled by the arresting optic of the smiling Saudi women in their cars.
This is all about the main man in Saudi Arabia, the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is not the King – that is his father – but he is the ruler-in-waiting and the 32-year-old is already stamping his authority over the regime and the country. He has been blitzing the world stage on a charm offensive to promote his vision for modernising his country, spending around $1 million on advertising on his three-day trip to London where the red carpet was rolled out for him.
He is trying to show that Saudi Arabia is becoming more tolerant and more open, particularly on women’s rights, by the lifting of the driving ban. This is the big showcase policy along with more public-sector job opportunities for women, some apparent relaxing of the strict dress codes, permitting women to go to music concerts and sporting events, giving women the right to vote in recent municipal elections and letting them stand as candidates.
Of course, these advancements sound good, but they mean nothing when women are still boxed in by Saudi Arabia’s strict male guardianship system which controls every aspect of their life from birth to death. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian – her husband but in some cases her brother, father or even son – who has the power to make all the critical decisions in her life including marriage, travel, education, going to work, renting an apartment and access to healthcare. This male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country and until that is gone, women will never have true agency.
The other factor in play is the economy. Saudi Arabia’s economy has been struggling as the price of oil has plummeted. Sixty per cent of Saudi’s population are under the age of 30 and the Crown Prince has realised that he needs to raise economic activity to get the country back on its feet – and that includes Saudi women who are actually better educated than men but not likely to be allowed to work. Only one in five Saudi women work, which is very low compared to the rest of the world. So, as Saudi’s natural resource – oil – provides problems, they now turn to another precious asset – their women. To be fair, we did the same a century ago after the war here. Only when British male politicians realised that women were economically essential, did they give us the vote.
Allowing women to drive is also good PR for bin Salman who is trying to curry favour from around the world – especially with the USA. One of Trump’s first visits was to Saudi Arabia and relations between the two countries are at their best since the 9/11 attacks. Who knew the world’s most famous misogynist would be so warmly received in the world’s most patriarchal society? Saudi Arabia and America have a common enemy right now – Iran – and the Crown Prince is responsible for stepping up military action in the war in Yemen where several thousand people have died and a third of the population is starving. Anything to divert attention from those horrific, shameful statistics makes sense for Saudi Arabia. So, the lifting of the driving ban and these new rights for women provides a useful media diversion.
But here’s the perhaps the most chilling reason to be cynical. This really wasn’t about giving women rights, it was to stop them protesting. Around eight leading women’s rights campaigners against the driving ban have been arrested and detained for their peaceful activism. Some have been detained without charge for more than one month and may face trial before a counter-terror court and up to 20 years in prison. And even though the thing they protested about – the right to drive – has been granted, these women have not been released. The message is clear. The men in charge will gift you these rights only if they choose but any protest or demand for them from women will not be tolerated. It’s a sinister but strong signal to women – be grateful for the small rights we choose to give you but don’t you dare ask for more. Women’s rights are human rights, not a privilege. But this is a country which treats its women like second-class citizens, where life is cheap, and the death penalty is commonplace.
As a young government press officer, I visited Saudi Arabia with the then UK Energy Minister Helen Liddell to attend an oil conference back in around 2001 and found the closed, ultra conservative, patriarchal society stifling. The Saudi officials we met found it difficult to comprehend an all-female political team on a matter as important and serious as energy. We were not allowed to leave the hotel without permission and a number of men to chaperone us and we had to wear a long gown called an Abaya when we did ask to go and do some shopping. There was a surreal moment when we saw a chain of underwear stores called “Ooh La La” which were hugely popular where veiled Saudi women would be served racy lingerie by Saudi men. There was also a moment of peril when I and the private secretary were instructed to find the minister a bottle of wine. That was quite an endeavour involving much lateral thinking, a very helpful Embassy staffer and some degree of danger. But never has a sip of Sauvingnon tasted so sweet!
Of course, I am glad for any advancement that makes life better for Saudi women, but let’s not kid ourselves that the decision to allow them to drive is about women’s empowerment – it’s about economics and the ego of another global strong-man. Welcome it, but be clear. This is not about feminism, this a fig leaf for international relations.