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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

After years of gradual reform, lifting Saudi driving ban sends powerful signal to conservatives  

The decision to allow Saudi women to drive is one of the most radical social and economic reforms to be introduced in the kingdom’s 87-year history.

The royal decree is part of a larger set of reforms in recent years that have granted women more economic independence and educational development.

Lina Al Maeena, a member of the Shura Council told The National the move is likely to promote women’s freedom in the country more than ever before.

She said the exact rules and regulations of the decision are still to be debated but should be announced “within a month to enable women to drive in around 10 months”. She said a committee of officials from the interior and labour ministry will draw up the details.

Saudi Arabia still lags far behind other Gulf nations when it comes to women’s rights, and it remains to be seen how much freedom they will be given on the kingdom’s roads when they finally have the ability to obtain driving licenses.

Some Saudi observers said the initial step may only permit women to drive for official reasons, falling short of equal rights to men.

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Regardless, the decision was roundly welcomed by Saudi women and some men who said allowing women to drive was a big move towards gender equality and will provide a huge boost to the Saudi economy.

“It's a series of decisions to enable women to work alongside their male counterparts to develop the country,” Ms Al Maeena said.

She said millions of Saudi riyals would be saved. Saudis employ around 1.38 million drivers at a cost of 3 billion riyals a month, but allowing women to drive would mean that about half a million would no longer be required.

The lifting of the ban is about “empowering women in line with vision 2030, increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent,” Ms Al Maeena said.

“Women driving in Saudi Arabia alongside their male counterparts is building and developing the country.”

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and an attempt to address a future in which oil plays less of a role in the kingdom's economy.

Providing women with more rights could be Saudi Arabia’s new economic fuel, as a generation of well-educated women intent on a role in society beyond bearing children will provide a much-needed injection into the workforce.

This sudden mobilisation of a huge section of the Saudi population will provide a dream scenario for growth. Those entering the work force have benefitted from the reformist policies of former kings aimed at empowering women.

By Saudi Arabian standards, King Abdullah, who died in January 2015, was a reformist, implementing a number of policies to raise the status of women. He was the first king to promote the idea that women had the right to higher education.

He also appointed 30 women to the Shura Council and issued a decree allowing women to participate as voters and candidates in municipal elections, the most democratic Saudi authority.

The lift of the driving ban “definitely isn't the first step,” said Jane Kinninmont, deputy head and Senior Research Fellow, at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“Many changes were made under King Abdullah. Among the important changes was the massive expansion of university education for women, including the scholarship system.

“The changes in the labour law and regulations over the past decade have also enabled these educated women to play more of a role in the economy, thanks to a series of influential ministers including the late Ghazi Al Gosaibi.”

After King Abdullah’s death, King Salman, in his first speech on ascending to the throne, said he would continue to push for reform on women’s rights. Allowing women to drive will likely be viewed as the most important move for women to date.

The more conservative aspects of Saudi Arabian society have not been silent. Islamic conservatives and clerics took to social media to express their condemnation of the decision. The most tweeted hashtag on the subject, and the fourth globally on Wednesday, translated to “the people reject the rule of women”.

Just days before the decision to allow women to drive, Sheikh Saad Al Hijri, a cleric in Saudi Arabia, said during a lecture that “women don’t deserve to drive because they only have a quarter of a brain”.

The decision to allow women to drive comes as the Shura Council moves to curb the authority of the ultra-conservative and often-criticised religious police.

Earlier this month, the council announced it would vote on a proposal for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as they are officially known, to be absorbed into the ministry of Islamic affairs.

The religious police are seen by many Saudis as a blight of their desire for a modern society, patrolling public spaces to enforce bans on music, the mixing of unrelated men and women and making sure prayer times are observed. The force also imposes strict modesty requirements on women’s dress.

In April last year, the government stripped the religious police of the power to arrest.

“Overturning the ban on women driving is a bold statement, as the issue has been one of great symbolic importance for religious conservatives in the country,” said Ms Kinninmont.

“It is something that senior princes have often talked about in the past, but it was always deferred to appease influential religious clerics.

“When King Abdullah wanted to rein in the power of the clerics, he usually did it through subtle, quiet steps, such as a series of long term judicial reforms that gradually reduced their powers in the justice system. By contrast, Mohammed bin Salman is making a more overt move to signal that Saudi Arabia is changing.”

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