Is Driving Next? Saudi Arabia Relaxes Rules For Women

Is Driving Next? Saudi Arabia Relaxes Rules For Women

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On May 4, the King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a decree concerning opportunities for women in his country.

This decree has two parts. The first part orders government agencies to list services that women can seek from the government without permission from a male guardian (usually a father or husband). Until now women could not obtain government services without the presence and permission of a male guardian. The second part of the decree directs organizations to provide transportation for female employees, in a country in which women are not permitted to drive.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, here attending the summit of the Arab League in March, 2017.  (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

It is also noteworthy that this decree comes on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s controversial election to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and on the same day as President Trump announced plans to make Saudi Arabia his first international visit while in office.

These changes are not drastic liberalizations. However, they could present significant improvement in the lives of many women. It is not clear yet which government services will become available to women now, but there is a hope that this can lead to greater economic and even social autonomy. Some in the country believe that this decree means that women will no longer need a guardian’s consent to obtain a passport, work outside the home and receive medical care.

The decree may empower women to open businesses on their own or travel abroad on their own – an issue that has risen to prominence after the recent well-publicized incident of a young Saudi woman who tried to flee her family only to be returned to Saudi Arabia by authorities in the Philippines.

Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, March 29, 2014, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

There is no doubt that the decree on transportation for women will have an immediate impact on the lives of Saudi women and businesses in Saudi Arabia. According to the Saudi Ministry of Education, women in Saudi Arabia attend college at higher rates than men. There are several examples of public achievements by women in business and even some in local politics. Yet it is still difficult for women to succeed, in part because of barriers placed by the Saudi system , like guardianship and the prohibition against driving. In a country with almost no public transportation, relying on a male driver can make work commutes difficult, even though ride-sharing services like Uber and Careem are very popular. Placing the onus for transportation on employers will make this one less hurdle faced by women.

Some in the Kingdom see this as the first step towards lifting the prohibition on driving entirely. Such a move would go a long way towards bringing more women into the workforce and opening the Saudi economy to foreign investment and business. On the other hand, many women’s rights activists are disappointed that the decree does not abolish male guardianship entirely.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Mohammad Bin Salman, the influential 31 year old son of King Salman and the Deputy Crown Prince, is said to hold liberal views on social issues, including the rights of women. This decree may be a sign that there is movement towards greater women’s rights in Saudi Arabia . It is also a sign that the country is modernizing for greater global interaction. Bin Salman has been leading an economic reorganization and diversification plan called Vision2030, which calls for greater foreign investment. Moving Saudi rights closer to global norms and facilitating the participation of women in the workforce will help achieve the goals laid out in this plan.

Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and scholar of the energy industry.  She writes and consults on the intersection of geopolitics and energy.

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