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.
Sigal Samuel: How are you feeling about the decree? Does it feel like a major victory?
Hala Al-Dosari: I have very mixed feelings. I’m happy for women in Saudi Arabia who will not have to suffer from the ban anymore. But right now, I’m not happy—because this came at the price of silencing women activists.
The same day the announcement was made, the royal court made phone calls to several women who have been active in the campaign, and told them not to speak to the press, not to make any comment on the decision, positive or negative. One of the women told me she actually asked the person who called her, “If I want to give a positive statement, what’s wrong with that? What would happen to me?” His tone was very police-like, very harsh. He said: “You know exactly what will happen to you. Measures will be taken against you.” He didn’t identity which measures, but we can infer that it would be something like detention or interrogation.
I think the government wants to make sure that the only people who will speak are those who are trained to speak for the institutions. They don’t trust these women. They want all the credit to go to the king for making this wonderful decision; it shows how the kingdom is being moved toward modernization. So they removed the activists from the discourse. I wanted the women to be able to celebrate their achievement, but now they can’t comment. It tells you something about the intent behind issuing this kind of decree.
Samuel: What was the original religious justification for the ban that this decree overturns?
Al-Dosari: Originally there was no religious edict on the matter—until 1990, when 47 women drove their cars in Riyadh [to protest the ban]. The Ministry of Interior instructed the mufti at the time to issue a religious fatwa justifying why women driving is bad. So then the fatwa came out, saying that although driving itself is not a problem (women in the era of the Prophet Muhammad were riding their camels and it wasn’t an issue!), in our time women could be led astray if they go out in public unchaperoned by men. It would be difficult to maintain control over them and to protect them from ill-intentioned men.
Samuel: So would you say the ban was more cultural than religious?
Al-Dosari: It’s not cultural or religious. We know that because during the driving campaign, women on the streets were never stopped by any member of society; they were stopped by the Ministry of Interior, by the traffic police. Besides, women in rural areas were driving without any restrictions, and they represent families with the strictest social structure, I’d say.
I believe it’s very much a political ban. In previous decades, the political utility of religious people was more important than modernization. It was more important for the government to align itself with religious constituencies, which gave the ruling family their legitimacy. The ban was used to try to appease these constituencies. Now that the government is taking more steps toward modernization, there’s more political utility in [ending the ban]. And because of the increased visibility of the ban internationally, it’s been more of a pain for the government to keep implementing it.
This is the problem with women’s rights in Saudi Arabia—it’s always used by the political system as a negotiation card, more so than being about empowerment.
Samuel: What do you think gave the king the political will to issue this decree now? Is it a natural extension of his son’s Vision 2030 plan to improve Saudi Arabia’s international reputation and, by extension, its economy?
Al-Dosari: The new leadership is very keen on making an impression. They’ve been really active in establishing networks across the globe, with the UN, with leading economic institutions, trying to create programs there to promote Saudi Arabia as a global enterprise. They know the impact—both economic and political—of a good reputation in the global sphere.
Look at what happened during President Trump’s visit: Saudi Arabia was promoted as the leader of the Islamic world, and there was that orb that lit up to show how they’re monitoring and surveilling all over. The political leadership wanted to paint itself as the leadership not only for Saudi Arabia, but for the region, and as the best ally possible in the region for the U.S. The patronage of the U.S. toward Saudi Arabia, especially with the new administration, has proven to be monumental in [shaping] the aggressive foreign policy that Saudi Arabia is embarking on.
Samuel: Do you think the prince will have a hard time selling the more hardline clerics on this decree?
Al-Dosari: No, because most of the leading clerics who really influence public opinion are hired by the ruling family. They are handpicked, so you won’t find resistance to royal orders among them. Their job is to promote the views of the state rather than their own ideals.
During the campaign, I tried to get someone from the Council of Senior Scholars [the country’s major clerical body] to support us women activists by giving a statement. He said, “It will never help you if you come seeking our support. We will never issue anything until we’re instructed by the king.” He actually said it, just like that! You can see how the religious institution is just a front to support the political institution.
Samuel: Around the world, the issue of equal rights for women holds such a powerful place in the cultural imagination these days. Do you think the kingdom has more incentive to address issues that have high visibility—women driving, that’s a very pictorial thing that you can see on your TV screen—whereas the country’s laws about women needing a male guardian are more abstract, so maybe there’s less visceral pressure to change that?
Al-Dosari: Yes, of course. You can see how the kingdom has been active in trying to reform women’s rights, not necessarily when it comes to the foundational structure of the patriarchy, which is protected by the state, but more so on women’s representation. I think this is something that is well accepted by the Saudi state: In order to gain an alliance with international powers, they need to normalize certain issues—but not too much, not to the point that it’s transforming the structure that lends them power.