Gearing up for change in Saudi Arabia

Rosalyn Wikeley

Rosalyn Wikeley on the Kingdom’s road to gender equality, after the lifting of the women’s driving ban

21 September 2018 18:00

The date 24 June 2018 will be etched into the collective memory of women in Saudi Arabia for years to come. Like an ice sculpture thawing under the beating Arabian sun, King Salman lifted the driving ban for Saudi Arabian women in a momentous royal decree, heeding the youthful counsel of the incumbent crown prince and ostensibly setting the Kingdom on the dusty road to gender equality.

Saudi women were mobile overnight. To celebrate, a few took their vehicles to the road in rapture, some blaring horns as the clock struck midnight, posting videos on social media; some silently digesting their new freedom – a freedom that women in the West rightly take for granted. No longer would their daily lives be entirely determined by medieval instruction, which meant that they had hitherto invariably been accompanied by male family members or hired male drivers.

Life is indisputably easier for them now. But is it really more equal?

Dignity is always hard-won: retrieved, after struggle, from the confines of history, or inspired by contact with different civic contexts. Social media and travel had allowed many Saudi citizens to peek over the Kingdom’s walls and to compare notes with other cultures on gender equality. The decree was a response to this enlightened appetite, as well as to activism (albeit gentle by Western standards).

To the eyes of those fortunate enough to live outside a theocracy – whose closest contact with such a life is watching the dystopian horror of The Handmaid’s Tale  – the right to drive may seem a small concession, and many outside observers have said as much. Yet for the average Saudi woman, this is new territory, new space to explore, new horse power, new social autonomy. Like a 17-year-old Brit first setting eyes on a rasping Peugeot, women of all ages in the Kingdom generally reacted with giddy excitement to a freedom unimagined by previous generations: leaving at will for the shops, taking the children to school and even driving to work.

Dignity is always hard-won: retrieved, after struggle, from the confines of history, or inspired by contact with different civic contexts.

In other words, the symbolism and impact of ‘Driving Day’, as it became known, is not to be underestimated – the driving ban having long been used by the western media as the hallmark of gender repression by the fundamentalist regime.

That said, it would be wildly premature to interpret this lone reform as marking or even necessarily heralding an end to gender inequality in Saudi Arabia. Let us not forget that this state, founded upon a religio-political pact between absolute monarchy and an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, is all but defined by the subjugation of women.

The new crown prince has allowed the world to believe that he is contemplating a return to a more moderate Islam. Is he thereby starting to unstitch the very tapestry of the Kingdom?

In an under-appreciated twist of fate and fabric, it is not western media and public opinion that is set to accelerate this unravelling, but something much more basic and kinetic: money.

As the Desert Kingdom looks to diversify its oil-dependent economy, the cause of women’s emancipation has become intertwined with market reform – much to the chagrin of religious clerics. Ambitious economic targets demand greater female participation in the workforce, and society needs to adjust to these new targets accordingly. The question is: how far can women’s right’s activists press forward their cause until they hit the dead-end of autocracy and Sharia Law?

The new crown prince has allowed the world to believe that he is contemplating a return to a more moderate Islam. Is he thereby starting to unstitch the very tapestry of the Kingdom?

Let us consider the history that they confront. As the birthplace of Islam in the 7th century when the Prophet Muhammad united the populations of Arabia, Saudi Arabia is integral to the Islamic world. The Kingdom itself was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud, who united its four regions into a single state, having gained the support of the Ikhwan, a tribal army inspired by Wahhabism (an ultraconservative movement within Sunni Islam). The puritanical Wahabbi movement had a long history of supporting the House of Saud with religio-political pacts, but as this modern Arab state formed, the Wahhabi doctrine was formally soldered into its framework as a dynastic alliance, governing Saudi culture to this day.

Wahhabi religious clerics henceforth became the architects of Saudi’s national character, leading the ulama (the Senior Council of Scholars) that advises the King on religious matters. Bearded enforcers would police public behaviour, scolding and sometimes arresting women who weren’t fully covered, were too outspoken or unaccompanied in public. Although the King began to bring the religious establishment to heel in 2016 by stripping them of these powers of arrest, old habits die hard, particular in a state where the lines between culture norms and law are blurred. There might have been occasional sightings of western dress, cheeky selfies, Louis Vuitton accessories. But this has always been an ornamental distraction from the basic quest for equal rights.

Undoubtedly the greatest impasse facing this movement is the guardianship system, a cornerstone of Saudi culture that demands that all women have a ‘wali’ (male relative or husband) as their official guardian in public, who must grant them permission to travel, obtain a passport, marry or leave home. Curiously, guardianship is not enshrined in written law – Saudi Arabia has no written legal code besides Sharia code – but is a cultural norm generally respected by legal government officials, the courts, businesses and Saudi subjects.

Women may be able to drive – but where are they to go once they leave the car, unaccompanied? Legal redress is next-to-impossible for sexual abuse or domestic violence, as – by tradition – women, again, need their guardian’s authorisation to file a complaint (this is especially so for less prosperous women). Human Rights Watch has described the guardianship system as ‘the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country’.

Women may be able to drive – but where are they to go once they leave the car, unaccompanied?

The corollary to patriarchy has been oil. Discovered in 1938 by the Americans, this precious resource quickly became a fabulous source of wealth for the monarchy and dramatically altered the balance of power in the Middle East. The trickle-down effects were no less dramatic, effectively providing cradle-to-grave welfare for Saudi subjects. To a considerable extent, the have-nots suddenly had.

Recently, however, this very specific matrix of religious autocracy, mineral wealth, gender-related and paternalist statecraft has been undermined by the decline in oil prices. Their GDP stagnating as a result, Saudi Arabia is scrambling to implement economic diversification in the private sector and to prepare themselves for life after fossil fuels. Consequently, the religious establishment has found its caprice increasingly eclipsed by economic imperatives as the state has been forced to renegotiate the social contract with its people.

Armed with a Hollywood smile and kind eyes, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS as he’s commonly known), now heir to the throne, was assigned with the job to reform the economy by his father King Salman, in 2015 as head of a ‘super-committee’, tying together the ministries and agencies directing the Kingdom’s economic policy. Speed was of the essence: 70 per cent of the population were employed in the oil industry, while the International Monetary Fund estimated that the Saudi economy would run out of financial reserves by 2020. MBS hired McKinsey to draw up a masterplan to shift Saudi’s economy beyond oil, known as ‘Vision 2030’. In this document lay the seeds of radical social change.

McKinsey Global Institute’s 2015 report had already predicted that ‘in the labor market, greater workforce participation by Saudi men and women is essential to achieve higher household income.’  As a bare minimum, MBS realised that women would need to drive to work, explaining to reporters at the time, ‘I think our leadership understands our society is ready.’ In fact, his father Salman had already foreshadowed this reform by ordering companies to provide transport for female employees. The King’s other preliminary reforms include the reintroduction of music concerts; the re-opening of cinemas; allowing women to watch sports in stadiums, to go to university, take a job or undergo surgery without their guardian’s permission. As liberty has grown, the social welfare system has declined: a fundamental shift in Saudi social organisation.

McKinsey drew up a masterplan to shift Saudi’s economy beyond oil, known as ‘Vision 2030’. In this document lay the seeds of radical social change.

Of course, the Crown Prince is still beset by a serious balancing act – trying to appease the religious clerics, whose support he will lose should he move too fast, while responding to the changing appetites of a youthful population (nearly 70 per cent of which is now under 35). Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, neatly summed up the dilemma for his network: ‘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.’

MBS cites the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 as the moment in the Middle East’s history when Saudi Arabia’s leaders braced in fear at the potential for the turbulence to be exported – and clamped down accordingly with their own authoritarian brand of Islam that thrust women back into the dark ages. It is the legacy of this response which he is now unpicking, at least partially. The aim is to increase the proportion of women participating in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030 – a target that is both economically bold and socially ambitious.

Yet headline targets of this sort are undermined by the lived experience of Saudi women. Only a month before Driving Day, women bravely campaigning for the ban to be lifted by posting videos of themselves at the wheel with no chaperone were being arrested and some jailed. Manal al-Sharif, who became the poster girl for the Women2Drive campaign following her arrest for having posted such a clip, also tweeted a picture of herself behind the wheel on ‘Driving Day’ with the caption: ‘Today the last country on earth to allow women to drive… we did it.’ Al-Sharif remains in exile in Sydney, afraid for her safety should she return to her home country.

Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East campaigns director, emphasised this point: ‘While we welcome the fact that women can finally get behind the wheel, we should not forget that many people are still behind bars for their work in fighting for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.’ In similar spirit, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres tweeted with cautious praise: ‘An important step in the right direction.’

Manal al-Sharif driving in Saudi Arabia

On ground level, Saudi women are making the most of the opportunity, such as it is, and relishing the impact of this change upon everyday life, as far as it goes. As Middle East expert, author and academic Christopher Davidson stresses, ‘they’re not trying to change everything overnight, they see it as one step at a time. For that generation, they’ve done their bit. They can’t unravel the whole patriarchy and change behaviour and penalties.’

With freedom comes commercial opportunity, and car manufacturers have not been slow to seize it. Aseel al-Hamad, the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation and already a keen motorsport enthusiast, was filmed on a race track near Riyadh taking her maiden lap in her home country for Jaguar’s promo. ‘This was always my dream,’ she sighed.

Ford channelled the mood of change by aligning its own company maxim – ‘freedom of movement drives human progress’ – with the historic moment for Saudi women (and, of course, MBS’s economic game plan). Audi pitched in with a smooth clip of a well-heeled couple leaving their home, the man chivalrously holding doors open for the woman as they leave, only to have the passenger door of an Audi A7 opened for him by his wife in their immaculate courtyard. The music pauses.

According to recent YouGov BrandIndex data, Toyota has emerged as the top car brand for women in Saudi Arabia, with Mercedes and Lexus hot on its wheels. The Japanese motor corporation did its sociological homework, dedicating areas of its showrooms to all-female staff and setting up call-centres run by women for inquiries.

It is encouraging that 84 per cent of women intending to buy a car say that the choice is entirely theirs – a clear suggestion that the grip of the guardianship system is loosening. For most women, safety is the primary criterion for purchase, followed by the status of a particular brand.

Uber has even started recruiting women drivers, rolling out a registration portal called Masaruky for Saudi women interested in driving for them. The rating system will be designed to fit the new cultural landscape, as will a new feature to allow woman drivers to connect to female riders (Uber may be innovative, but it knows the difference between the various markets in which it operates).

A female Uber employee carting a Saudi man around Riyadh: the very idea would until recently have been as fantastical as a desert mirage. There are grounds for optimism. But, as Uber’s rating system shows, there is always a gap between dream and reality.

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