Saudi women who have spent years fighting for the right to drive finally got their wish on Tuesday—but the victory is an incomplete one.
As King Salman issued a decree overturning Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers, many observers detected the influence of his 32-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince has ambitious plans to overhaul his country’s economy and international reputation, as detailed in his Vision 2030 plan. Granting driver’s licenses to women dovetails neatly with that plan: It will allow more women to enter the workforce and show the world that the kingdom is willing to roll with the times. The decree was announced simultaneously on Saudi state television and at a Washington media event, suggesting a desire for maximum PR effect.
“It’s PR, but it’s PR that was triggered by the work of women activists,” said Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar currently based at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute. Al-Dosari is one of the many women who have campaigned for an end to the driving ban; she herself has driven four or five times in Saudi Arabia. Now, she advocates on behalf of activists there who can’t speak freely for fear of government retribution.
Although Al-Dosari described the decree as “a good step” that will improve many women’s lives as well as the Saudi economy, she expressed skepticism about the kingdom’s motivations. Just like the ban it overturns, the decree is not really about granting women more autonomy, but about consolidating political power, she told me. Our conversation, which follows below, has been edited for clarity and length.