Tuesday’s announcement that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive is extraordinary both in social and political terms. There is also an important economic dimension: Currently, an estimated one million foreign men, mainly from the South Asia and the Philippines, are employed as drivers for Saudi families. Now, many will no longer be needed.
Perhaps anticipating yesterday’s news, last week a Saudi cleric said that the ban on women driving should remain in place. He argued that women had only half the brainpower of men; when they went shopping, it was reduced to a quarter, he said. The uproar was instantaneous. The cleric was banned from preaching, though he probably still remains on the government payroll.
Saudi society traditionally venerates age and at least publicly respects Islamic preachers. But all this might be changing. The decision to remove the ban was nominally King Salman’s, but it is clear the driving force was his son, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The 32-year-old wunderkind is trying to transform the kingdom’s economy. His Vision 2030, a grand plan announced last year to bring the Saudi economy and society into the 21st century, envisages an economy with a broader industrial base less tied to oil. He also has a much less conservative view of social mores. Authorities allowed women to attend a celebration of Saudi Arabia’s Independence Day in a sports stadium this week. Part of his economic plan involves the development of tourist resorts along the Red Sea coast, a paradise for divers. The facilities will be built to “international standards,” a term widely interpreted as allowing not only gender-mixed bathing, but also bikinis and probably alcohol.