Why Women Driving In Saudi Arabia Is Significant

To women living in the Arabian kingdom, this is a historic day. To them there’s only one thing to take away from this day; they are equal to all women around the world in the right to steer, there will be no more spoken orders to go anywhere, the hand does what the mind wants.

There are however, repercussions, to everything.

For a long time, the economy of Saudi Arabia has been in a place coveted by most Arab countries, enjoying extreme oil wealth for the better part of a century, which helped transform the desert of tribes into a modern state with TV and universities and research centers and industrial power. The transformation was so quick it left many a people gasping at the pace, let alone Saudis themselves who found themselves in cultural and social dilemmas that entailed such crash importing of a lifestyle they never imagined or knew existed. The cultural shock, and the political makeup of the country allied to Wahhabi Islam, are the very reason for the many contradictions that existed in the path to modernity witnessed throughout much of the 20th century and to a lesser degree continue to exist into the 21st century.

The introduction of technology into the kingdom in the fifties and sixties has always been coupled with a backstory, most entertaining among which is the telephone story. Telephones didn’t make it into Saudi Arabia if it weren’t for the wit of King Faisal, who duly demonstrated the goods this device could bring - he actually put two Imams on either end of the line and had them have a conversation - to overshadow whatever evil the religious imams perceived it to possess. The first TV station in Saudi aired Quran recitals to show not only the imams, but as a symbol to the whole world, that this device can and will broadcast whatever you choose. The first radio station brought demonstrations that in one way or another resulted in the assassination of King Faisal.

The car had a different facet. It was imported very early on in the young kingdom, bulldozers and trucks along with them to help flatten the desert to build what are now contemporary cities. The religious and conservative young society however didn’t mind the streamlined American Fords and Caddies, but the idea that the Harim were to roam free on the roads, the sphere of men, without permission from their men guardian Muhram, and get into car accidents and stop and mingle with newspaper sellers at traffic lights was at odds with what the religious men believed to be decent for a woman. That was not an easy concept to demonstrate, because to them the only demonstration they knew of that was the women in the West without veils, driving red convertibles, with the wind stroking their hair. It was vice.

One might argue that other gulf societies have experienced the same new riches that brought all those culture clashes along with them, but there are fundamental differences. Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar have all been riparian societies. Their economies were heavily dependent on pearling and the subsequent trade. Trade with India and Persia showed them a new perspective to the outer world; men going out on long fishing trips at sea, often a week at a time, forced women to step up and assume daily chores inside and outside of their dwellings, which helped establish women as a vital part of day-to-day life in those primitive societies. Season-long trading voyages hardened their skin to assume leadership of life without a guardian. Who knows how many of those women were told their man was taken by the sea, and found themselves in place of the household’s breadwinner.

Jeddah lies on the west coast of Saudi Arabia. ‘The Jewel’ has always been their Red Sea maritime trade hub and it brought upon Jeddah’s society the same openness witnessed in Dubai or Doha today. The conservativeness of Riyadh many of us call extreme subsides in Jeddah, women are not even forced to wear the veil in public, to the women of Jeddah it’s a cultural thing just as much as the Sheila worn by women in the UAE consider it to be a thing of grace and beauty and culture, a religious symbol, not a cuff.

The hurdles Saudi women have had to overcome were enormous. Saudi Arabia has been a country locked in a tight ideological battle since its inception, primarily between a camp who wants the future and one who wants the past, the latter are Wahhabis who were promised Islamic foundations for the country, and it resulted in a tangible divide in the society. The lack of openness in public resulted in underdeveloped social skills necessary to cope with the modern artifacts of modern living. Women are underrepresented as part of the labor force of the country, which in turn limits the natural human interaction of the two bodies of the society for them to learn about one another. Single men have been mostly confined to bachelors’ quarters at restaurants and cafés, entry to malls had been restricted in the past, and to experience the pleasure of film, the youth have to drive to nearby Bahrain to sit in a cinema. Schools and universities are largely segregated.

In recent years, there has been numerous attempts by women to sit behind the wheel and drive down highways of Riyadh and other cities in an act of defiance and civil protest. The most recent one was three years ago when the campaign erupted on Twitter via the explosive hashtag #Women2Drive and #LoujainAtTheBorder, several arrests were made but were released upon their guardians signing pledges to abide by the law and not grant their wives or daughters the keys to their cars. In a previous incident, a father even apologized to the King personally. While some men were open-minded enough to let this happen, many took to the same medium of Twitter to shout out their anger against what they called Dayatha, an archaic term for an unjealous man - both linguistically and metaphorically. Those men are the generation that suffered the terror of the religious police, some of them are the very same who were followed in malls by the Mutawwaa’ (the religious authority officer) carrying a baton and a shaving machine on the hunt for teenagers imitating the outfits and hairstyles of Western Pop stars, giving them a free buzz-off. This generation never experienced what it’s like to converse with a female colleague or a neighbor, to expect that they’d accept this with open arms was lunacy.

Today in 2017, the circumstances have changed. The economy of Saudi is not limitless, or at least it is not perceived to be, the oil barrel has crawled up painfully slowly from early 2015 when it was at $30, and the religious police have been practically neutralized after a string of violations and abuses causing the King to render them irrelevant. A recessive wave of moderate Islam hit the Middle East after a long period of religious escalation. But the primary driver of reversing the policy on women driving in Saudi is economic. The young crown prince Muhammed Bin Salman (or MBS) wants to see a modern landscape and an oil-independent Saudi, with economy diversifying measures designed to boost the economy by creating new sectors and invigorating existing ones. The pros outweighed the cons.

The social gains from this decree are not negligible. Women will actively engage men on the streets, one of the primary components of public space, the message it sends out to women is that of empowerment, and it will allow women to further shape their lives and by extension their cities. The streets and their active retail frontages will thrive with cafes and plazas that are host to young women proud to announce their newly found liberty. Women have already been debating taking down the male guardianship that lurks over their heads, and if this is granted to them in the coming few years, the changes to the Saudi social landscape will be substantial, they would mimic the civil rights movement, in its reach and scale. We will then see exponential growth of civil liberties taking place in a time when Saudis need it most, a wave libertarianism could see the county’s potential unlocked, young men and women assuming more power and leadership over schools, universities, schools of art, theater and film-making, all disciplines that have rich seeds now but could further become major players on a regional level. Sowing seeds of cultured education may even have wider ripples.

The fight against extremism and terrorism could finally originate from within the kingdom. Ever since 9/11, the image of the country has been tarnished by 15 men, and the long-lasting effect of that day continues to this day where a lot of debate is taking place on how to eradicate religious and cultural extremism that may have caused the rise of many terrorist organizations. While the latter may have exploited the means available to them under whatever banner - be it religious or not - to recruit young fighters from across the world. Saudis have found themselves part of recent embroilments with two active wars in the region, wars that have been waged partly because of religious divide. Nonetheless, to draw the conclusion that omitting male guardianship in Saudi Arabia is the solution to global terrorism is daft, but the idea that empowering women in one of the most important players in a sensitive region is a bold proposition and is worth exploring.

Economically, Saudi's 30-million population - of which 70% is local - is a big market. Contrary to popular belief, many of them do not own multi-million-dollar mansions with a fleet of luxury cars, the majority lives on moderate incomes from jobs in public and private sectors, some Saudis even drive taxis for a living. Their GDP per capita is half of that of the UAE.

Opening the door for women to drive boosts many sectors of the economy, starting with the surge of driving license application and driving test fees, and subsequently the large number of driving licences the MOT will issue in the course of the next two years. New licensed drivers will bring the dealers more customers to drive new cars off their showroom floors, which in turn will inflate insurance rates for everyone. And when more drivers are put on the roads, more traffic violations and more speeding tickets will take place which will bring in more money into the annual budget. Many others will share the spoils such as the used cars dealers exploiting the opportunity of a new class of the society on the hunt for a different offering, older models will find their way on the export market opening more trade with neighboring countries. Service providers will see their businesses grow across the board, from window film shops to the supermarket shelves that sell scented accessories. But, does this mean that all businesses will prosper? unlikely.

The first job that will die a slow and painful death is private drivers, with their target audience literally abandoning them, their market has collapsed after decades of service for some of them. Some families will opt to retain their services to help senior members of the household, but one is safe to consider this job obsolete in the next few years. Taxi drivers and limousine companies as they are known in Saudi are the second to suffer with demand shifting away to car ownership. Regardless of what the financial difficulties may suggest, owning a car has become an unattainable dream for women, and in the wake of achieving it all reason of convenience will not be considered. Some taxi drivers will find themselves out of a job, or at least on less earnings compared to when they had a bigger part of the society dependent on them. Some will become unemployed who will turn to other services to find jobs, and some will turn to the state to support their livelihood. Will this put a little pressure on the state’s finances? It remains to be known.

But what would be easier to predict is the pressure more drivers on the roads will inflict on the maintenance of the infrastructure. Major cities like Riyadh may be planned with future-proofing in mind, but smaller cities will suffer from more roads users, longer traffic queues translating in loss of resources and time, let alone the ecological aftermath from more emissions. The number of road accidents could potentially rise in the country, which will require upsizing the police force and putting even more patrol cars on the road.

Introducing a new kind of “driver” to the streets of Saudi Arabia is another aspect worth contemplating. Saudi Arabia suffers from one of the highest road fatality rates in the world, a whole new infrastructure of measures must be introduced to educate road users on how to co-exist safely on the road. The cost of preserving human life may offset the many economic gains forecasted from this ban being lifted. However, one thing that we can take away from this day is that Saudi women are finally equal to all women around the world in the right to steer.