Saudi Arabia said it will remove a ban on women driving, ending its status as the only country in the world to impose such restrictions on half the population.
Women will be entitled to driving licenses starting in June next year, the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing a royal decree. Committees from various ministries have been set up to examine implementation, and they’ll report within 30 days, the SPA said.
It’s the most dramatic move so far in the government’s effort to liberalize Saudi society, a counterpart to an ambitious program of economic modernization that’s intended to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil. Saudi Arabia adheres to an austere version of Islam, and its curbs on women — as well as religious minorities — are a regular target for human rights activists. As well as being barred from the roads, Saudi women need the permission of a male guardian to marry or travel abroad.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the country’s predominant leader and architect of the plan, risks pushback from the powerful Saudi religious establishment and traditionalists among the public. The government cracked down on some of its conservative critics this month, detaining prominent clerics, academics and businessmen.
In the past week, authorities relaxed the rules to allow women to attend celebrations for the anniversary of the kingdom’s founding, and men and women danced together at a street party in Riyadh. Within days, there were calls on social media for the religious police to restore moral order.
In an interview in April last year, Prince Mohammed said that women deserved wider freedoms. “We believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain,” he said. “Changes could happen in the future, and we always hope they will be positive changes.”
Women activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly defied the driving ban, launching campaigns in which they’d be filmed behind the wheel of cars, illegally. Aziza Alyousef, who took part in two of them, said by phone that she was grateful to the kingdom’s rulers, “and also I’d like to thank every woman from the 1990s until now who participated in campaigns and continued to ask for their rights.”
The 32-year-old Prince Mohammed has already upended Saudi Arabia’s traditionally cautious foreign policy, and outlined radical changes to the way its economy is run, including a proposed share-sale in state oil company Saudi Aramco that may end up being the world’s biggest-ever IPO.
Many of his initiatives have run into trouble. Saudi Arabia is bogged down in a war in Yemen, and has largely abandoned its effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. While the goals of the government’s economic program have been widely praised, some of its measures have already proved tough to implement: Cuts to bonuses and allowances for public officials were reversed amid signs of public opposition.
Gregory Gause, a Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University, said the decision to let women drive fits Prince Mohammed’s broader strategy: “open up socially (but not politically), make economic efficiency and change a center piece of domestic policy, and not pay too much attention to the religious establishment.”
The country’s top religious body, the Council of Senior Sc
Categories: Saudi Arabia