Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it plans to issue drivers licenses to women for the first time. Women won’t be allowed to drive immediately, but it’s a huge step forward for women in one of the world’s most repressively patriarchal societies. As Reuters reports:
Saudi Arabian women rejoiced at their new freedom to drive on Wednesday, with some taking to the roads even though licenses will not be issued for nine months.[….]
“Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop,” Manal al-Sharif, who was arrested in 2011 after a driving protest, said in an online statement.
King Salman announced the historic change on Tuesday, ending a conservative tradition which limited women’s mobility and was seen by rights activists as an emblem of their suppression.
Saudi Arabia was the only remaining country in the world to bar women from driving.
Freedom of movement for women in Saudi Arabia remains a major human rights concern. The guardianship system, in which male relatives can exercise veto power over women’s rights to education, employment, or travel, is still in place. As difficult as that is for Saudi women, conditions are far worse for Saudi Arabia’s female migrant workers who often endure physical, sexual, and other abuses with little or no recourse to justice. Addressing those issues would be the next step for women’s rights following the end of the driving ban.
But the Saudi monarchy is engaged in a much larger project than human rights reform. Though the driving ban isn’t explicitly mentioned, the decision fits comfortably within the reforms laid out in Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030.” Vision 2030, the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (with the help of a few good management consulting firms) lays out radical reforms for Saudi society, notably by diversifying the country’s economy away from oil.
Those are laudable goals. But the driving ban is one of many examples where Saudi Arabia is going to have to carry out reforms that Saudis regard as radical but that are already taken for granted virtually everywhere else in the world.
Take entertainment. Vision 2030 aims to “increase household spending on cultural and entertainment activities inside the Kingdom from the current level of 2.9% to 6%.” Increased spending is good, but half of the potential audience for soccer games or the kingdom’s rare concert are excluded because women aren’t allowed into the stadiums. That may change too, but because Saudi sensibilities require retrofitting the stadiums with a dedicated women’s section, it’s a reform that has been promised and failed in the past.
Vision 2030 can basically be summarized as “Be more like the United Arab Emirates.” The UAE’s efforts at economic modernization and diversification have largely been a success. Dubai, especially, derives only a small fraction of its revenues from oil, though both Dubai and the country as a whole remain vulnerable to the economic fortunes of the region, and therefore ultimately to oil.
Unfortunately, it’s an example that Saudi Arabia will likely find impossible to emulate. One critical element of the UAE’s success, for example, has been in drawing 15 million tourists each year. Vision 2030, along the UAE model, calls for “large areas along [Saudi’s] coasts [to] be dedicated to tourist projects.” Leaving aside that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia, leaving aside that men and women can’t bathe together in Saudi Arabia, leaving aside all of the other reasons why tourists would obviously prefer to go the UAE, or Jordan, or Israel among all of Saudi’s would-be tourism rivals—Saudi Arabia does not issue tourist visas.
I’ve made it a point so far to limit the reforms under discussion to those that have no real cost. It would cost Saudi Arabia nothing to issue normal tourist visas. It would cost Saudi Arabia nothing to allow women to buy soccer tickets. There are countless other examples. Some of them, like additional freedoms for women, have obvious potential social and political consequences. Others, like relaxing restrictions on foreign ownership and investment, do not. Quite often, as in the case of tourism or the Saudi ban on movie theaters, reforms that would have enormous economic benefit do carry some potential social downside. But Saudi Arabia’s reticence to enact even basic social reforms calls into question the viability of the entire economic project. All of that is before considering those reforms that would also require real investment, like overhauling the kingdom’s abysmal education system.
Americans might balk at the notion that this is their concern. Whether or not Saudis can go to the movies is ultimately a trivial question. But American support for the Saudi monarchy, repressive as it is, has always been predicated on the fact that Saudi Arabia without the monarchy would probably be even more religiously radical and dangerous to American interests. The survival of the Saudi monarchy was never in much doubt with oil at $120 a barrel. With $50 oil and a declining market share, the Saudis have to find some economic alternative to maintain the viability of the state. Americans should wish them well, but the Saudis need to start moving faster.