The young Saudi Crown Prince's PR coup proves political calculation in the country has changedby Jane Kinninmont / September 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
Saudi Arabia has overturned its ban on women driving—the only one in the world. For years this has been one of one of the most famous things about Saudi Arabia. Internationally it has symbolised women’s oppression and inequality in Saudi Arabia, while at home conservatives have portrayed women driving as a danger to public morality, road safety and even their own fertility. Changing this is an international PR coup for Saudi Arabia and for Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who is far more media-savvy and PR-conscious than his predecessors. This issue is so well-known, disputed and symbolic that lifting the ban has more immediate impact than almost any other single announcement they could make.
Pressure for this change has been building internally, both from Saudi women activists and from women who don’t see themselves as activists but just need a way to get to work. Economic necessity has been an important part of the argument. Women are the majority of Saudi graduates, get the best degrees, and are working in rising numbers. The growing economic role of women has made the driving ban increasingly impractical in a country with basically no public transport.
Yet until today Saudi officials always said society was against the issue. Now they’ll quickly change their tune. Certainly the government has to take public opinion into account, but it was always unrealistic to portray the government as simply a passive reflector of public opinion. Rather, banning driving was a political choice—a sop to religious conservatives. For them, it was a symbolic statement that Saudi Arabia was committed to upholding its strict traditions in the face of ignorant western pressure.
So this is not just a matter of social change. It is also an indication that the old political calculations have now changed—which is partly based on social change, but partly on personality politics. The new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, wants to assert his power over influential religious clerics, traditionally seen as a check and constraint on government. The recent arrests of a number of influential independent clerics, such as the popular Sheikh Salman Al Awda, demonstrated this, and helped pave the way for today’s announcement. Their arrests seemed to be triggered by the Qatar crisis (some of them were seen as sympathising with Qatar), but also send a broader message that opposition is not tolerated.
Despite all the years of talking up the opposition to women driving, the change will probably go through with hardly any resistance, now that the government has put its weight behind it. Yesterday’s official announcement emphasised that the majority of the kingdom’s council of senior religious scholars—who are appointed by the king—agreed with the change.
Individual fathers or husbands will no doubt forbid their daughters or wives to drive, which will again turn the spotlight on the issue of male guardianship, another (arguably even greater) priority for Saudi women activists.