Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a media-savvy man, and he has just pressed the button he knew would make headlines: Saudi women will be able to drive for the first time in the history of the kingdom. And the act begat the headlines and the headlines begat a tweet from the President of the United States who himself begat a $110bn arms contract with the Saudis three months ago. And so it came to pass. For 24 hours, the world was told about the lifting of the driving ban rather than the chopping-off of heads, the arrest of human rights activists and the horrific war in Yemen.
And even then, it transpires, it will be next summer before Saudi women can start driving their sports cars around Riyadh or taking their children to school – for one of the prominent campaigners has claimed that she for one will buy a Mustang. First of all, a “commission” has to enquire into the lifting of the ban. But will it have the right to place restrictions on the new law? An age limit, perhaps? Married women only? For when a Saudi cleric said a week ago that women should not drive because they have “a quarter the brainpower of men”, there will surely be some limit to this new freedom.
There’s no doubt that Saudi Arabia needs some good news. Its fury at Shiite Iran – where women have been driving for decades – has turned out to be just another Sunni-Shia hate campaign. Its attempt to isolate Qatar is failing. Its war in Yemen (10,000 dead; 40,000 wounded) is viewed with increasing distaste by the Saudis, let alone by the Yemenis themselves whose country’s destruction has led to a cholera epidemic and whose destitution means that more than half the population live in poverty; and who cannot dream of feeding their children, let alone buying a Mustang. Many Saudis have Yemeni origins – remember the bin Ladens? – and the country’s Shiite minority have no interest in the bombing of their fellow Shiite Houthis in Yemen.