Saudi Arabia is changing much faster than we in the West realise

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Time: March 01, 2018

Any chaps out there who still suspect that chaos on our roads is caused by damn women drivers should go to Riyadh. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia banned women from driving.

The ban was justified for a glorious variety of reasons – from a cleric’s claims that driving damages women’s ovaries, to accusations that allowing our fairer sex to drive would result not only in society’s swift moral demise but also that women are just so fundamentally bad at driving, they would wreak fatal havoc on the roads.

You might not be surprised to learn that an absence of women at the wheel on Saudi Arabia’s roads has not resulted in ubiquitous immaculate driving. In this man’s world, the closer you can get to the car in front, preferably at excessively high speed, the better.

Saudi Arabia duly ranks in the top 25 in the World Health Organisation’s number of deaths on the road, and according to the Kingdom’s own Ministry of Health, around 80% of hospital deaths are from traffic accidents.

But this week, the totem fell. The King of Saudi Arabia announced that women will be able to drive from June 2018, and perhaps even more significantly, they would not require permission from their male guardians to take lessons.

This is not only big news for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is also a disruptive challenge to the perceptions of the West. The ban on women driving, which characterised Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world, was a comfortable symbol for all that our Western liberalism has loved to hate about Saudi.

Don’t get me wrong. There still remain a rich multitude of reasons why anyone who expects to see all nations uphold Western standards of equality and human rights will have legitimately deep concerns over social and religious norms in Saudi Arabia, and its implementation of Sharia Law.

But perhaps our overriding obsession with displaying our liberal credentials by vocalising our intolerance of another nation’s laws has blinded us to what has actually been going on.

Women I spoke to in Riyadh earlier this year were quick to tell me. Many without headscarves, they spoke in excited tones about the withdrawal of the religious police from public life. They were no longer accosted in shopping malls to provide proof that they were actually the wife of their husband.

The General Authority for Entertainment was overseeing the introduction of mixed gender cinemas and music concerts. “One day soon, we’ll be able to drive too” they told me. I did not get the impression they thought it would be this soon.

But change is coming fast. Women air traffic controllers, female Islamic scholars to be able to issue Fatwas, nurseries in the work place to help women to work and in December, a women’s economic leadership forum is being held in Riyadh, called “Let’s Talk About Tomorrow”.

The forum is aptly named. The driving force behind these reforms is a recognition, championed by the new Crown Prince, the young Mohamad Bin Salman, (often just referred to as ‘MBS’) that Saudi Arabia urgently needs to talk about tomorrow. With an ever-growing, ambitious and globally aware youth population, and a fall in the price of oil, Saudi Arabia knows it must grasp tomorrow, or be swallowed by it.

But in a Kingdom that is proud to be the birth-place of Islam, keeper of The Two Holy Mosques, and home of a tradition of Islam that aims to follow The Prophet’s habits and actions as strictly and literally as possible, grasping tomorrow is a delicate business. The more cosmopolitan, globally-aware city-dwellers are hungry for reform. But many rural Saudis are deeply attached to their traditions.

“Vision 2030” is the plan set out by MBS to walk that tightrope. It is billed as a plan profoundly rooted in Saudi values, to modernize, not to Westernise. At its heart is the recognition that economically active women are essential for a healthy society and economy and that fulfilling the potential of Saudi Arabia’s talented women is vital to the Kingdom’s future.

Next year, many Saudi women will be celebrating passing their driving tests. Their next call is for an end to the controversial ‘guardianship laws’, whereby a woman needs a male relative’s permission to travel and get married.

Just a few years ago, the kind of changes Saudi Arabia has seen would have been unthinkable. But both in domestic and foreign policy, Saudi Arabia under the new Crown Prince is a Kingdom driving forward at speed. At such a time, women at the wheel can only be a good thing.

This article was first published in  Telegraph

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