In an unprecedented step for a country where a sprawling monarchy has managed to cling to power in part because of its concessions to hardline conservative clerics, Saudi Arabia announced today that its King Salman has issued a historic royal decree granting driving licenses for women in the kingdom, meaning that women will soon be allow to drive – overturning a longstanding symbol of oppression in the Muslim world just days after President Donald Trump slammed the US ally’s human rights record during remarks at the UN.
The royal decree issued on Tuesday also ordered the establishment of a high-level committee of involving the ministries of internal affairs, finance, labor and social development. They will be tasked with studying the arrangements to enforce the new law.
“The royal decree will implement the provisions of traffic regulations, including the issuance of driving licenses for men and women alike,” the Saudi Press Agency said, according to Al Aribaya
According to the New York Times, the change which will not happen immediately, was announced both on state television and during a simultaneous media event in Washington.
The policy change represents Saudi Arabia acquiescing to international criticism. The change also arrives as the cash-strapped Kingdom is trying to modernize its economy, and sell a stake in the state-controlled oil company, Aramco.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is ruled by Sharia law. It was also the first foreign country that Trump visited as president, where he and the kingdom’s rulers touted business relationships – including a historic arms deal – between Saudi Arabia and the US.
According to the Times, some in Saudi Arabia believe that women shouldn’t drive because male drivers would not know how to handle women in cars next to them. Others argued that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity.
As Saudi Arabia’s rulers appear to have decided that modernization is the best future course for the country, we wonder, what freedoms will the country’s repressive regime acquiesce to next? Will it be suffrage for women (they’re already involved in political life, though they can’t vote)? Or perhaps allowing them to show their faces in public?
Two years ago, we addressed the irony that Saudi Arabia was a leading candidate to lead a UN panel on human rights despite an international uproar at the time about the country's beheading of a teenaged political dissident (Saudi Arabia was eventually chosen to lead the panel). The influential panel helps shape the UN's human-rights policy and reports on violations. Earlier this year, the country was again bizarrely selected to lead the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a powerful committee focused on women's rights.
However, it appears the women's rights panel has shaped the kingdom more than the kingdom has shaped it....for now at least.