saudi women driving
Spokeswoman defends progress in Saudi Arabia
02:19 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Last weekend a longtime Saudi friend who very recently started working for the government sent me video of something remarkable for the streets of Desert Kingdom.

It showed young men and women, together in the same street , dancing to a live DJ’s beat, fluorescent lights strobing as they pulsed up and down.

This place is right around the corner from Riyadh’s infamous “Chop Chop” square where criminals are routinely executed by sword. It’s a pretty sensitive location.

You just don’t see Saudi kids doing that outdoors anywhere and getting away with it, let alone there. Religious police would round them up in no time.

Admittedly, the dancing was on the heels of Saudi National Day when spirits typically run high, but never has the Saudi leadership let its leash on public restraint run so loose.

This is a country built on conservative teachings, grown out of a desert culture so harsh that when loved ones die, their graves are left unmarked.

Still, when I read the announcement that Saudi women were to be given the right to drive, part of me was not too surprised. It fits the recent mood music around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2030 vision for change in the Kingdom.

The Crown Prince wants to bring more women into the workplace, in an effort to diversify and boost the economy – allowing women to drive is a way of accelerating that vision.

The decision also comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is under increasing international scrutiny, not just because of the civilian toll from its war in Yemen, but also as a result of tensions with Iran, a sudden rift with former Gulf ally Qatar, even bin Salman’s promotion over the head of his uncle to be next in line to replace his father, King Salman.

Regardless of why, the change has been building behind the scenes for a while now – ministers and teams replaced, other more subtle shakeups – but it was never quite clear where it was leading.

It’s still not clear. We’ll have to see how the decision to let women drive is put in place before we can draw firm conclusions.

Women’s rights

Of all the subjects that I’ve covered in reporting on Saudi Arabia down the years, the one I’ve spent most time on is women’s rights: from female campaigners behind the wheel, to bloggers, to upper-class activists who bend the King’s ear to push for change, to young aspirational women in school and out on their first job beholden to their father’s whim on the limits of their travel and achievement.

For many of these women, driving is not the biggest issue. Far more important are basic rights to equal a man’s, like the right not to need a male guardian’s permission to set foot out of the house.

One thing that came up time and again from men and some women was the question, what does a woman do when her car breaks down?

Of course, this starts from the misogynist’s view that a woman won’t be able to change a tire or fix a faulty headlamp at the roadside.

A Saudi woman prepares to get into a taxi on a main street in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on September 27, 2017.

But the answer most gave runs like this: If she is alone in the car, how can she ask for help unless her guardian, a male family member, is with her? Talking to a male outside her family it could bring dishonor, even violent retribution.

The subtext is that women out alone might not be safe, subject not to the laws of the land but to the capricious mores of a conservative, tribal society.

When you consider driving in that context it’s hard to miss the liberating effect of women driving might have in many other areas.

It could challenge pretty much every concept of women’s place in society, so while it may not have been the No. 1 issue for some women it really could be a game changer.

Right now, women can’t even work in the same room as men, they need a male relative’s permission to leave the house and they need that relative at their side if they meet an unrelated male.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Yet in Riyadh and Jeddah and other cities these rules are bent every day. The hunger for change, particularly among the young, is huge and growing.

The Crown Prince has read that sentiment well, but implementing it will be a double-edged sword for him.

Setting limits and managing expectations will be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s challenge.

He has already had to dial back delivery on his 2030 Vision, the plan for economic reform he laid out last year. It was widely viewed by some Saudis and many outsiders as ambitious and fast-paced.

Another Saudi video from last weekend showed the high-speed antics of male teenagers hanging out of car windows racing through city traffic, all revved up on the intoxicating sense of freedom induced by just one night of revelry.

When it comes to driving, perhaps women might display a welcome lack of testosterone. Through all the changes to come, that might be no bad thing.