Mohammed bin Salman and the End of a 70-year Ban

Time: August 27, 2018

The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia could have continued for another ten years, or even 20 years, if it wasn’t or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was tasked by the king with the project of development and change.

The decision to end the ban on women driving is one of many decisions pertaining to women, like allowing them to enter sports stadiums, attend concerts, and work in various different sectors.

Since the 1970s, we kept waiting for the moment when banning women would end, which was an idea that is not justified by logic or religion, merely a societal tradition. Year after year, our hopes were crushed, and the calls of local women failed. The ban continued for long centuries as no one dared to anger the governors or society. This also included several other unjustified prohibitions, from cinemas to concerts to women participating in public community events.

I say this to clarify a truth that we learned from these century-long bans: That this was a brave step taken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who did not have to do it. He could have left Saudi Arabia to go forth as it had been for the past 70 years, by banning women from diving cars. And it is not true that there were external factors pressuring him, as foreign governments have tried this and failed. There is also no large local group calling for change, as some claim, as the number of women who did actually try to break this barrier and drive their cars in the past years is very little.

Saudi Arabia has witnessed two years of massive changes, and after a year of becoming crown prince, it must be said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a man with a vision and a brave leader. He challenged expectations that betted on him going back on his promises, as no other Saudi ruler dared to do this before. He proved wrong many analysts who believed that his statements and promises were for propaganda and wouldn’t see the light. All the promises were executed.

The truth is, he didn’t have to do it if it weren’t for his personal belief in change. Perhaps his wishes reflect his belonging to the younger generation, or his conviction that the kingdom could not develop economically without being developed socially. It is no secret that we are aware about his thoughts on change since about four years.

Allowing women to drive cars, ending the ban on cinemas, and other shockwaves that he sent through Saudi Arabia which is the most traditional society in the world, were all issues that were discussed before King Salman bin Abdulaziz assumed power, and was entrusted with being crown prince.

Everything we see is drawn out in the promised project of change and development, by freeing society from obstacles that hinder it from moving forward.

Those who try to portray this change, especially the ending of the ban on women driving cars, as a consequence of internal pressures are a minority living in their own world that has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia’s reality. The truth is completely opposite to this.

The pressures came from governors and traditionalists who refused changing the status quo, and tried making the government go back on its decision, either directly or through social media. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the crown prince could have left things as they are, by continuing to ban women for ten, maybe 20 more years, but he chose the opposite.

He chose to be responsible for this decision, just as he did with other socially sensitive decisions in Saudi Arabia. For this, we have to acknowledge his courage, and salute him for this step and others, while being aware that he has the trust and guidance of the king.

By ending the ban, Saudi Arabia is ending a lot of the “privacy” that specialized and isolated it from the world, and it is time for it to be a normal state. With giving women a lot of their rights, and opening up more opportunities for them in the last two years, we look forward to more in the future. All of these decisions are part of the larger Vision 2030, which aims to transport Saudi Arabia from being one of the only oil-producing countries, to being an able country economically, politically and militarily.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat 

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Why Some Saudi Women Will Keep Their Driving Licences a Secret

Time: June 23, 2018

Saudi Arabia’s monarch may have opened the door for Saudi women like Shahd to start driving, but she still needs to sneak out of the house to take lessons.

The 26-year-old business student knows she’s in for a battle to convince her parents because in their community, some would find it shameful to see a woman behind the wheel. Once she gets a licence, she’ll stow it in a drawer until she musters up the courage to ask.

“I’ll have to be accommodating to the whole society,” Shahd said in a café in her hometown of Buraidah in central Saudi Arabia, where it’s rare to see a woman’s face exposed in public. “I don’t think it’s right to force something upon them.”

Women apply for driving licenses in Buraidah.
Photographer: Vivian Nereim/Bloomberg

Even as the kingdom ends the legal ban on Sunday, Shahd’s conundrum shows how daunting it will be for many Saudi women to suddenly transcend ingrained traditions that have limited their freedom during decades of state-imposed patriarchy. Guardianship laws bar them from traveling or getting married without approval of a male relative, usually a father or husband but occasionally even a son.

Change has come abruptly since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman charted out plans to wean Saudi Arabia off oil two years ago, which will be tough to do if half its population is disempowered. Yet at the same time as expanding women’s rights and social freedoms, he’s jailed women who campaigned to drive for years and come down hard on opponents to his reform agenda.

Saudi families are torn between embracing or resisting changes that clerics and government officials had spent years portraying as sinful. Some are concerned that their rulers are pandering to the West in a way that violates their traditions and religion.

“In itself, the fact of women driving is likely to become normalized relatively quickly,” said Graham Griffiths, a senior analyst at global risk consultancy Control Risks in Dubai. “However, as part of a broader revolution in gender roles in Saudi society, this will have longer-term implications for society, which could still cause considerable social upheaval by creating deep divisions.”

Prince Mohammed has opened cinemas, loosened gender segregation, curbed the powers of the religious police and allowed music to be played in public, overturning longstanding restrictions rooted in a rigid interpretation of Islam.

The culture shock is less pronounced in cosmopolitan centers like Riyadh or Jeddah because it wasn’t uncommon for parents to be comparatively flexible with their daughters, at least in more wealthy households. Many even got licences while studying or vacationing abroad and have swapped them for Saudi ones, proudly splashed in selfies across social media.

Learning to change a tire at Aramco’s drive school. | See more photos from the driving school
Photographer: Mohammed Al-Nemer/Bloomberg

It’s a bigger adjustment in outlying regions like Qassim, nicknamed Saudi Arabia’s Texas by some for its conservatism and the prevalence of Salafi clerics. The province, whose biggest city is Buraidah, has established a driving school for women, but it’s not open yet.

Women interviewed by Bloomberg were conflicted, eager to drive but also wanting to respect that their cultures will take time to adapt. Two said they’d been adventure driving in the desert for years beyond the public gaze.

Others said their parents worry letting them drive will tarnish their reputation with neighbors. For traditional Saudi families, providing for women, including chaperoning them around, is regarded as a way of bestowing honor on them.

“Our problem now is shame and customs, not Islamic law,” said 43-year-old Asma Al-Musleh, who shared a commonly cited story about a wife of the Prophet Muhammad riding a camel in the seventh century. As she sat beneath palm trees at a local park in the town of Unaizah, a group of young girls were, quite aptly, driving back and forth in mini toy cars.

Al-Musleh is too scared to get behind the wheel herself, but her 18-year-old daughter Reef—who grew up in the Internet age—has fewer hangups. She’ll wait until “after things quiet down and people become convinced.”

Acclimatizing will happen more quickly in liberal pockets like Dhahran, an eastern coastal enclave that’s long been exposed to foreigners and heavily shaped by the American origins of Aramco, which is headquartered there. Aramco opened a center with 50 trainers to teach female staff and dependents how to drive using simulation technology, as well as other skills like changing tires.

Using a driving simulator.
Photographer: Mohammed Al-Nemer/Bloomberg

“My friends and family are excited,” said 30-year-old Fatimah Al-Namlah. “Driving is one way of moving women of this country to the future.”

Nada Al Aswad, 37, is already considering what car to buy. “Driving is important for every woman who seeks independence,” she said.

In Buraidah, transformation rests on women like Shahd finding the courage to challenge the only reality they’ve known. They’ll have some help: A handful of Saudi women clad head-to-toe in black were at the local traffic department one recent morning swapping licences from Arab countries like Bahrain, Jordan or Egypt.

After passing a short driving test, Aljohara Alwabli, a 54-year-old retiree, thrust her arms into the air in the parking lot to celebrate. “Driving is a human right,” she said from behind her face covering and thick-rimmed and bejewelled sunglasses.

Aljohara Al Wabli, 54, poses with her new driving license in Buraidah.
Photographer: Vivian Nereim/Bloomberg

Shahd, who’s never traveled abroad, isn’t allowed to take Ubers or taxis alone so her brother gives her a lift everywhere—including to the driving lessons she plans to take in another town. She once turned down a job offer an hour from home to avoid disrupting the family’s drop-off and pick-up schedule.

While she works up the nerve to face her parents, Shahd is certain of one thing: her community will, eventually, have to adjust.

“I hear people sometimes saying this is a cosmetic change, or symbolic—it’s not,” she said. “It has to change the dynamic within families, within households, within public life in general.”

This article was first published in Bloomberg

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Saudis back ‘life-changing’ reform allowing women to drive, survey reveals

Time: June 22, 2018

The end of the driving ban will boost women’s financial power and allow them to play a bigger role in economic and social diversification in line with Vision 2030, prominent businesswomen said on Friday.

Hind Khalid Al-Zahid was the first Saudi woman designated as an executive director — for Dammam Airport Company — and also heads the Businesswomen Center at the Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

She sees the historic move as a huge step forward for businesswomen in the Kingdom.

“Women being allowed to drive is very important; of course this will help a lot in sustainable development as the lifting of the ban on women driving came as a wonderful opportunity to increase women’s participation in the workforce,” she told Arab News on Friday, ahead of the end of the ban on Sunday.

She added that women in the job market are under-represented; they make up to 22 percent of the national workforce of about six million according to official estimates. Lifting the ban will help to take women’s representation in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030, she said.

“This is not just the right thing to do for women’s emancipation, but also an essential step in economic and social development as part of the reforms,” she said.

She said that there were different obstacles in increasing women’s participation in the workforce and other productive activities, and the driving ban was one of them. It was a strategic issue that needed to be addressed on a priority basis. With the issue resolved, it would help immensely in giving Saudi women better representation as they would help to diversify the Saudi economy and society.

She said that women could contribute hugely to the workforce and labor market as half of Saudi human resources were female, and unless allowed to excel in different sectors it would not be possible to do better, mainly because of restricted mobility.

A recent survey by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce indicated that transportation was a major concern holding Saudi women back from joining the labor market.

This article was first published in Arab News

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