Women in Saudi Arabia flocked to the roads Sunday immediately after midnight to celebrate the end of the country’s ban on female drivers, which King Salman ordered in September at the behest of his chosen heir, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. MbS, as he’s widely known, is pushing to modernize the Kingdom in a bid to help diversify its economy away from the oil industry.
“It is our right and finally we took it. It is only a matter of time for the society to accept it, generally,” said Samira al-Ghamdi, a 47-year-old psychologist from Jeddah, as she drove herself to work. She was one of a small group of women who had managed to secure a license beforehand.
While some pro-Saudi media outlets have argued that the lifting of the driving ban is part of a broader shift away from human rights abuses, as Reuters points out, it has also been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including against some of the activists who had campaigned for it. Meanwhile, concerns that women drivers might face harassment prompted the passage of a new anti-harassment law last month. The police reported no incidents during the first hours after the ban ended. In the coming months, the Interior Ministry plans to hire female traffic police.
In the meantime, MbS will be able to take credit for the economic windfall, as women are expected to drive up demand for cars and auto insurance, while the economy benefits from an increase in productivity as more women enter the workforce. Saudi families are also expected to save billions of dollars on chauffers, though some women have said they don’t plan to drive and prefer to be chauffered from place to place.
Women posted videos of them driving, many of which included western pop music playing in the background.
— Sarah Dadouch | سارة دعدوش (@SarahDadouch) June 23, 2018
— Aziz Albraik (@Azizalbraik) June 24, 2018
— Maha (@1Profond) June 23, 2018
Some traffic police handed out flowers to female drivers.
— shaimaa khalil BBC (@Shaimaakhalil) June 24, 2018
One video circulating on social media showed Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the country’s richest men who was one of the princes rounded up in MbS’s “corruption crackdown”, sitting in the passenger seat while his wife drove in Saudi Arabia for the first time. Their children sat in the back. “Saudi Arabia has just entered the 21st century,” the Prince can be heard saying.
— الوليد بن طلال (@Alwaleed_Talal) June 23, 2018
But even with the lifting of the ban, Saudi Arabia remains a deeply repressive state as it continues to silence female activists, and restrictions remain on interactions between women and men in public. Though we imagine that won’t stop the country’s allies from hailing MbS as a reform-minded young ruler – a reformer who will help modernize the country for the sake of its economy – regardless of how inaccurate these claims might be.