According to state media Al Arabiya, Saudi Arabia's leader King Salman has declared that women in Saudi Arabia can have driving licenses. It is worth noting that Salman's order will not take effect until June next year but the newly-declared decision will definitely change how Saudi men and women navigate their country through transport. Prior to Salman's announcement, Saudi women were capable of going from one place to another only if they had a male driver to complete the trip for them. Starting June in 2018, Saudi female citizens will be able to drive on their own.
Activists have long campaigned to change the orthodox and ultra conservative kingdom's ruling for years. Local women have also attempted to drive on their own, posting their photos on social media, and initiating hashtag campaigns to highlight the abject lack of equality imposed on their physical mobility. In more than one instance, activists and journalists who have highlighted the plight of the Saudi women were arrested and interrogated for defying the kingdom's ban.
Among one of the women, Loujain Hathloul was reportedly arrested by the Saudi law enforcement agency for driving on her own from the neighboring United Arab Emirates. "I have been at the Saudi border for 24 hours. They don't want to give me my passport nor will they let me pass," Hathloul tweeted. Saudi activist and journalist Maysaa Alamoudi was also arrested for extending support to Hathloul.
In spite of aggression and curtailing efforts from the kingdom's law enforcement agencies and religious police, political figures such as three female members of the Saudi Shura Council, the consultative body of the kingdom, requested that the assembly discuss the issue of the no-driving rule for women. The request took place in 2013, garnering the attention of Saudis living under the absolute monarchy. In spite of persistence from the three members, the request was rejected by the body on grounds of its deemed "irrelevance" and being "not within the transport ministry’s remit."
Observers believe that the recent announcement from the kingdom is a result of several shifts in the monarchy's paradigm. In addition to mounting pressure from local women who wished to move freely, some think that the change was also given momentum by the younger Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has recently sought to shake matters up in the kingdom.
Such a decision will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the kingdom's position in the global community where its international image is a negative one: a regressive and hostile monarchy bent on quelling the rights of women.
In addition to that, another possible reason for the kingdom's sudden change in attitude could be based in plain and simple economics. Reports from the monarchy show that the kingdom has been seeking local women to apply for more jobs so that their labor may boost the country's domestic revenue. But such a proposition, no matter how encouraging, was difficult for Saudi women to accept on purely logistical grounds. Going to an interview and getting selected for a job would necessitate driving to the workplace and for that, women would have to hire a separate driver or seek a male guardian's assistance. With so many hiccups in the process, seeking financial empowerment would ironically become financially counterintuitive.
One Saudi woman was quoted in the Financial Times' report saying, "It is challenging. Men have the advantage of driving. Whenever there is a sudden visit to a client, I can’t accommodate that." Clearly, the monarchy's consistent resistance to women driving had an economic disadvantage in addition to a stained global impression.
That could all change come June, 2018. Some might believe that the no-driving rule in Saudi was a common trend in Muslim countries but Saudi Arabia is not only the only state in the world that banned women from driving, it was also the one and only Muslim country to do so.