Women Behind the Wheel: Impending Saudi Arabian Economic Restructuring

Allie Carter (CMC ’19)

Saudi Arabia, characterized by its conservative religious and national values, has made the monumental decision to grant women the right to drive. This deep-rooted policy has been representative of the systemic repression of women in Saudi Arabia. The decision to permit women to drive not only has major social implications but will also transform the country’s economic structure.  

Since the country’s founding in 1932, Saudi Arabia has been distinguished as one of the most ultra-conservative nations internationally. The profoundly orthodox culture stems from the government’s Islamic influence, reinforced as part of a Saudi national identity by the royal family. The Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam is the nation’s most dominant religion. The separation of church and state is nonexistent, as the Saudi Constitution is the Quran and the objective for the educational system as defined by the government is to advocate Islamic ideology and “to aim the students in the true Islamic direction.” Even today, non-Muslims are ineligible for Saudi citizenship.  

Wahhabism, a conservative sect of Islam, encourages a patriarchal societal structure that is pervasive throughout Saudi Arabia and is especially evident in the nation’s male guardianship system. A series of bylaws, policies, and procedures, the male guardianship system prohibits women from traveling, receiving medical aid, applying for jobs, and a myriad of other rights unless granted approval from a male guardian–usually a brother, father, husband, or son. Guardianship laws have been protested in the past, but always met with rejection from government officials. Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, the most prominent Islamic figure, considers the movement to eradicate guardianship laws a “crime against Islam.”

Under a specific provision of male guardianship jurisdiction, women have been denied the right to drive since the nation’s founding. Government officials have justified driving sanctions with many arguments: men would not feel comfortable sharing the roads with women; if women were to drive it would weaken the structure of the Saudi family; officials have even falsely claimed that driving damages women’s ovaries.

Despite these arguments, economic counterarguments for allowing women to drive have gained popularity over recent years. Prince Mohammad bin Salman introduced a program called “Vision 2030” in April 2016 that aims to update Saudi Arabia’s economy through working more directly with other countries and through expanding women’s roles in the workplace. Prince Mohammad bin Salman remained skeptical about terminating the ban on female drivers when he introduced Vision 2030. However, a year and a half later after “Vision 2030” was introduced, the Saudi Arabian royal family decreed on live television and at a concurrent event in Washington D.C. the decision to end restrictions on women driving. The new driving policy will be implemented in June 2018.

Similar to “Vision 2030,” lifting the ban on female drivers should transform the Saudi economy. Since women have become active members of the Saudi workforce, they have relied on drivers in order to commute. Spending large portions of one’s salary on transportation to one’s job has proven to disincentivize women from joining the workforce. The Saudi government hopes that upon being granted the right to drive, more women will be inclined to seek employment.

While having more women contributing to the workforce is beneficial to the Saudi economy, the lifted ban has implications for those working as drivers. The ban on female drivers has produced an interesting dichotomy, as a sect of the population has worked for decades as drivers for women. Upwards of 800,000 men, predominantly South Asian, depend on chauffeuring women for their source of income, whether as personal drivers or by working through a ride-hailing application. Uber has released reports saying that 80% of its users in Saudi Arabia are female.

In ending the restriction that prohibits women from driving, Saudi Arabia has taken a step in a positive direction towards modernity and social justice. Beyond the economic implications of the decision, Saudi women are gaining innate rights, will have the capacity to contribute more to the workforce, and are one step closer to ending guardianship laws. Further, the decision to repeal the ban on female drivers is indicative of a changing Saudi culture. The ban on female drivers has tainted the country’s public perception even among its strongest allies. For example, American officials have openly criticized the policy, as it was one common to the Taliban and jihadists of the Islamic state. Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been diligently working to win the approval of the U.S. administration and with the implementation of this new policy, there is potential for a new dynamic and relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States and further Western countries. The systemic repression of women in Saudi Arabia has been inherent to the nation in response to its theocratic and conservative government, but the years to come promise to be ones of transformation and progress for both the women of Saudi Arabia and the country as a whole.

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