Saudi Women Are Finally Behind the Wheel, But What Does it Really Mean?

In September of 2017, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it was going to end its longstanding policy that banned women from driving and start issuing driver’s licenses to women beginning in June of 2018. The King had just appointed his 32-year-old son, Mohammad Bin Salman as the new Crown Prince in a move that shook up the normal line of succession.

Major changes were to be expected as the kingdom’s rulers have previously been in their 70’s and 80’s. So when the young, new, de facto ruler of the country lifted the ban on women driving, the global community responded uniformly, with applause and victory. And, while it is true that it’s about damn time women had the right to take a seat behind the wheel, one cannot help but wonder whether this move was truly a response to the persistent activism and protests of women in the country — or a calculated move by the new Prince.

The Saudi Arabian media discusses the decision as a move to enable more women to find employment. Since many women cannot afford chauffeurs, it leaves them with limited mobility throughout the country. Plus, given the fact that many of the drivers are sponsored foreigners, lifting the ban would mean the money that was previously going to foreigners would be reinvested into the Saudi Arabian economy.

This new law, amongst others, can be attributed to the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” plan which aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy.

The Brookings Institute describes the plan as a vision to, “…modernize its economy and society while allowing it to maintain its hold on power. The plan includes greater integration of women and young Saudis into the workforce, largely out of economic necessity.” This new plan attempts to shift the revenue away from the current oil-and-petroleum-based economy to a tourism-and-entertainment-based one.

This means the country will be investing in some hefty positive PR moves to draw foreign visitors and investment in — deflecting attention from other human rights abuses committed by the country.

For decades, the kingdom has continually been racking up human rights concerns and continues to have a questionable record. Around the same time the driving ban was lifted, many political dissidents and prominent clerics were arrested. (Not to mention leading up to the lifting of the ban there was a siege on a predominantly Shia town in the country.)

However, the most glaring example of human rights abuses is the American supported war in Yemen which the Red Cross has called a “humanitarian catastrophe”. It has been three years of conflict between the Saudi-backed forces and Houthi rebels, which has resulted in displacement, a cholera outbreak, famine and 7,600 civilian deaths (as of January of this year).

So, while some have praised the young, “progressive” new ruler for his decision and hail the new law as a “human rights victory,” one cannot help but see it as a distraction.

We can’t let one positive change divert our attention from the fact that the Saudi Arabian government has been — and continues to — heavily bomb Yemen (with US-made bombs) while civilians are starving and dying from cholera on a daily basis, while the Shia peoples are essentially being cleansed from the country, while political dissidents are executed or jailed, while homosexuality is still illegal and while women remain under the guardianship of their fathers and spouses.

This may have been a step in the right direction (regardless of motivation) but Saudi Arabia still has a very long way to go.

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