The morning after Saudi Arabia joined the rest of the world in opening its roads to female drivers, the top-trending hashtag among the kingdom’s Twitter users wasn’t supportive.
“The people reject women driving” was shared widely in this highly wired society where social media offers people a rare outlet for criticism.
Tuesday’s royal decree overturning a ban that had been widely condemned by Saudi activists and global human rights organizations was the boldest move yet in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to open up Saudi society, a counterpart to an ambitious program to modernize the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. Yet Saudi Arabia remains a deeply conservative Islamic country and there is a risk of a backlash.
The Council of Senior Scholars commended the royal order but expressed reservations about the need to abide by Islamic requirements. Some young men interviewed in Riyadh described the decision entitling women to driving licenses from June as a mistake. Ministerial committees have been set up to examine implementation, and they’ll report within 30 days, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
It’s not “going to be a simple journey to allow women to drive,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group. As well as opposition from the clerical establishment, some in the ruling family may accuse the prince of impatience.
“There are going to be elements that resist this. There’s no doubt about that,” Kamel said. “He cannot silence all the dissent.”
The issue of women driving has always been divisive, pitting the guardians of Saudi Arabia’s strict Islamic lifestyle against those who want a more liberal one. Conservatives have traditionally lashed out in the media, drawing on religious teachings to support their argument that allowing women to drive would lead them toward evil. As well as being barred from the roads, Saudi women need the permission of a male guardian to marry or travel abroad.
The press conference at which Saudi ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud formally announced the policy was held in Washington, D.C., rather than at home. Scrapping the gender bar wasn’t a matter of “westernizing or easternizing,” he said. Saudi Arabia was instead “modernizing” and listening to society.
“The government has to take public opinion into account,” said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, but it has never been a passive reflector of public opinion. “Banning driving was a political choice — a sop to religious conservatives and a symbolic statement that Saudi Arabia was not simply doing whatever the West wanted.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders also issued a statement welcoming the move and pledging continued support for “efforts to strengthen Saudi society and the economy through reforms like this and the implementation of Saudi Vision 2030,” the official name for the crown prince’s reform push.
Awwad Alawwad, the Saudi minister for culture and information, hailed the decision as helping to “enable all Saudis to take part in the nation’s development” in a statement. Women “are an integral part of this journey,” he said.
This week had already exposed the Saudi fault line over gender. Authorities relaxed rules on mixing of the sexes to allow women to attend celebrations for the anniversary of the kingdom’s founding at the weekend. Men and women later danced together at a nighttime street party in Riyadh. Within days there were calls on social media for the religious police — stripped of some of their powers last year — to restore moral order.
Women activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly defied the driving ban, launching campaigns in which they’d be filmed behind the wheel of cars, illegally. Some of those who joined the early protests were publicly named, lost their jobs and were stigmatized for years.
Aziza Alyousef, who took part in two of them, said by phone that she was grateful to the kingdom’s rulers, “and also I’d like to thank every woman from the 1990s until now who participated in campaigns and continued to ask for their rights.”
Prince Mohammed, 32, has already upended Saudi Arabia’s traditionally cautious foreign policy and outlined radical changes to the economy, including a proposed share-sale in state oil company Saudi Aramco.
Many of his initiatives have run into trouble. Saudi Arabia is bogged down in a war in Yemen, and has largely abandoned its effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. While the goals of the government’s economic program have been widely praised, some of its measures have already proved tough to implement: Cuts to bonuses and allowances for public officials were reversed amid signs of public opposition.
Saudi authorities have recently shut down some of their critics, detaining several people said to have affiliations with conservative movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this month, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and former government adviser, described a new wave of “fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming” after clerics and activists were arrested.
For Alyousef, the activist, Tuesday marked a giant step toward her first Saudi driving license. She said she plans to apply as soon as she can, aiming to be first in line: “I wish my license number would be 0001.”
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