Saudi Arabia’s long-awaited lifting of a ban on women’s driving, widely viewed as a symbol of Saudi misogyny, will likely serve as a litmus test for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to introduce economic and social reforms despite conservative opposition.
It also distracts attention from international criticism of the kingdom’s war in Yemen and charges by human rights groups as well as some Muslim leaders that the kingdom is fostering sectarianism and prejudice against non-Muslims.
If last week’s national day celebrations in which women were for the first time allowed to enter a stadium is anything to go by, opposition is likely to be limited to protests on social media.
To be sure, thousands welcomed the move as well as the lifting of the ban and Saudi media reported that senior Islamic scholars, who for decades opposed expanding women’s rights and some of whom criticized Prince Mohammed’s effort to expand entertainment opportunities in the kingdom, said that they saw no religious objection to women’s driving.
Conservatives made their rejection of enhancing women’s rights in response to the national day celebrations.
"Patriotism does not mean sin. Of course, what is happening does not please God and his prophet. Patriotism is not dancing, free mixing, losing decency and playing music. What strange times," said one critic on Twitter.
A video of a man telling celebrating crowds that they have “no shame, no religion, no tribe" was widely shared on social media.
Hundreds of thousands used an Arabic hashtag demanding the restoration of powers to the kingdom’s religious police, whose ability to strictly enforce ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim moral codes was curbed last year.
A 24-year-old, speaking earlier this year to The Guardian, noted that ultra-conservatism maintains a hold on significant numbers of young people. “You know that the top 11 Twitter handles here are Salafi clerics, right? We are talking more than 20 million people who hang on their every word. They will not accept this sort of change. Never,” the youth said.
Talal Salama, a Saudi singer, was attacked on social media this week for singing a text from the Qur’an during the national day celebrations. “The disaster is not just that he is sitting singing the Quran, the disaster is that it was a party approved by the government that is allowing him to sing, said lawyer Musleh al-‘Udayni on Twitter.
In advance of the lifting of the ban, Saudi authorities banned Saad al-Hijri, head of fatwas (religious legal opinions) in the Asir governorate, from preaching for declaring that women should not drive because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man’s when they go shopping.
The suspension was the latest measure in a crackdown in which scores of Islamic scholars, including some of the kingdom’s most popular ones, judges and intellectuals, were arrested. The arrested were likely to ensure that conservative opposition to the lifting of the ban would be muted.
The kingdom’s decision to delay implementation of the decision until June next year gives the government time to neutralize opposition and serves as an indication of what it would take to ensure Saudi women’s rights.
To implement the decision, Saudi Arabia has to first eliminate bureaucratic, legal and social hurdles that prevent women from obtaining licenses, create facilities for women to learn how to drive, and train policemen to interact with female drivers in a country that enforces gender segregation and in which men largely interact only with female relatives.
The lifting of the ban is part of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan that seeks to diversify and streamline the economy and introduce limited social reform but avoid political liberalization.
With women accounting for half of the Saudi population and more than half of its university graduates, Vision 2030 indicates the limits on granting women’s rights by envisioning that women will account for only 30 percent of a reformed kingdom’s workforce.
While the lifting of the ban in a decree by King Salman allows women to apply for a license without the permission of their male guardian, the principle of male guardianship that subjects women to the will of their menfolk remains in place.
There is, moreover, for example, no indication that last week’s use of a stadium as a test case, will lead to a lifting of restrictions on women’s sporting rights, including free access to attend men’s competitions and the ability to practice and compete in a majority of sports disciplines that are not mentioned in the Qur’an.
The public relations value of the lifting of the ban was evident in the fact that it temporarily drew attention away from news that reflected badly on the kingdom, including mounting international criticism of Saudi conduct of its war in Yemen, that has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss. Saudi Arabia has desperately been seeking to avert censorship by the United Nations and defeat calls for an independent investigation.
It also put on the news backburner, a 62-page report by Human Rights Watch that, despite the banning of Mr. Al-Hijri, documented that that Saudi Arabia has permitted government-appointed religious scholars and clerics to refer to religious minorities in derogatory terms or demonize them in official documents and religious rulings that influence government decision-making.” Anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiment was evident in the Saudi education system and in the judiciary, the report published on Tuesday said.
Saudi Arabia adheres to a puritan interpretation of Islam that views Shiite Muslims as heretics and advocates avoidance by Muslims of non-Muslims.
The kingdom has spent an estimated $100 billion in the last four decades to propagate its austere vision of Islam in a bid to establish itself as the leader of the Muslim world and to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of US influence in the Middle East.
In doing so, it has contributed to Muslim societies like Malaysia and Indonesia becoming more conservative and intolerant towards minorities. Saudi ultra-conservative influence was visible earlier this week when an owner of a self-service launderette in the Malaysian state of Johor banned non-Muslims from using his services.
“Saudi Arabia has relentlessly promoted a reform narrative in recent years, yet it allows government-affiliated clerics and textbooks to openly demonize religious minorities such as Shia. This hate speech prolongs the systematic discrimination against the Shia minority and – at its worst – is employed by violent groups who attack them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa