On Sept. 26, Saudi Arabia overturned laws forbidding women from driving. The New York Times reported that the law will go into effect in June 2018. The impetus for changing the policy came with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pushed to overhaul the monarchy’s society. Bin Salman aims to increase female participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030.
“We have been calling for this, and lobbying for this, and expecting this, any day and any year,” Maha Akeel from the Red Sea port city of Jidda told the LA Times. “This gives women more independence and confidence, and empowers women to know that they can manage their daily life.”
While driving privileges will grant women more freedoms, experts project the move will impact society in more concrete ways too. Not all of them are as rosy as they look.
Lifting the ban shows political motivation
Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar based at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, told The Atlantic the new law gives her mixed feelings. Al-Dosari has campaigned for an end to the driving ban and has even driven four or five times in Saudi Arabia. She also advocates on behalf of activists there who can’t speak freely for fear of government retribution.
“I’m happy for women in Saudi Arabia who will not have to suffer from the ban anymore,” she said. “But right now, I’m not happy—because this came at the price of silencing women activists.”
The same day the ban lifted, according to Al-Dosari, women activists who pushed for it received phone calls warning them to stay out of the press.
“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,” she explained. “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.”
A-Dosari said the new law indicates a new Saudi Arabian political movement.
Letting women drive doesn’t just mean liberation
Many supporters said the driving ban rooted itself in religion, but Al-Dosari disagrees. In 1990, the Ministry of the Interior instructed the mufti to issue a fatwa against women drivers. The fatwa came out against not driving itself, but the potential for women to become “led astray” if unchaperoned.
Now though, lifting the ban fits perfectly into bin Salman’s plan to modernize the country. “In previous decades, the political utility of religious people was more important than modernization,” Al-Dosari explained. “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].”
The highly visible campaign holds political sway abroad, too.
Trump’s visit helped spark the new law
The Atlantic noted how keenly Saudi Arabia has been positioning itself in the international sphere. Allowing women drivers removes one black mark against the intensely conservative country.
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,” Al-Dosari said. “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.”
She said lifting the ban positions the government better as a global enterprise, something the leadership sees as necessary. “In order to gain an alliance with international powers, they need to normalize certain issues,” she added. “But not too much, not to the point that it’s transforming the structure that lends them power.”
In addition to political sway, the new law will impact the economy in some unexpected ways.
Ride-hailing companies might take a hit
Wealthy Saudi families have long hired full-time drivers, often migrant workers, to cart women around. The Washington Post reported this sub-economy might dramatically shift, once women get behind the wheel.
According to Arab News, at least 800,000 men, mostly from South Asia, work as drivers for Saudi women. These drivers earn up to $400 a month for their services. Figures released by Uber said that as many as 80% of its Saudi users are female, and other ride-hailing apps also rely on female users.
“There are some [women] that take five to 10 trips with us every day,” Mudassir Sheikha, the founder of Careem told the LA Times in 2015. “We don’t see that kind of traffic anywhere.”
Ride-hailing does not represent the only industry that women drivers will impact.
Car companies applaud women drivers’ entering the market
“It removes a key impediment for women to work, as would have the development of public transport,” Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank PJSC, told Bloomberg. “However, the creation of women’s jobs will be largely dependent on the underlying economic conditions and changes to regulation.”
It probably surprises no one that automakers like Ford and Volkswagen both came out with ads celebrating the new law. Saudi women took to Twitter to discuss buying cars after the announcement, but the might not run right to the showroom.
“The other economic impact could be the short, one-off boost for car sales, though in some cases families already have an additional car for women,” Malik added. Removing the need for a driver “will help boost real income for mid- and lower-income families,” she said.
That real income boost can have even further-reaching effects.
Women drivers can stimulate the economy
Saudi women are often better educated than their male counterparts, but lacked access to the workforce, Bloomberg explained. “This will not only mean greater access to the economy, including the retail sector, but will also mean a reduction in a large component of highly unproductive foreign labor – drivers,” said Farouk Soussa, chief Middle East economist at Citigroup Inc.
“This, in turn, will mean a decline in outward remittances and more money ‘staying home’ to circulate in the economy.”
Alia Moubayed, director of Geo-economics and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said improving that access creates a win-win for the entire economy. Women tend to invest more of the household income in educating their children. Raising their earnings would, associatively, raise school enrollment for girls. Moubayed called that “a critical factor helping to reduce poverty and lifting standard of living.”
One company in particular stands to benefit from the law.
Who wins big in new law? Big oil
Saudi Aramco, the nation’s oil company, can benefit greatly from women drivers. Women already drove within that company’s large compound, the LA Times noted. That company plans to go public soon as part of the country’s plan to lessen its economic reliance on cheapening oil.
Regardless, driving alone will not truly improve Saudi Arabia’s low female participation in the workforce. “Independent mobility for women would definitely ease their entry and participation into the workforce particularly that they would not have to secure a mode of transport to come to work,” said Dima Jardaneh, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Standard Chartered in Dubai. “A meaningful change in this would require a host of other structural measures such as a change in social norms and readiness of workplaces to accommodate female employees.”
Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University and one of Saudi Arabia’s most vocal women’s rights activists, told ABC the lifting of the driving ban was “the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for.”
“This is a good step forward for women’s rights,” she said. “It’s the first step in 1,000 miles to go.”
In order to do so, more than licenses need to change.
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