The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
Riyadh lifts the driving ban: 'carwashing' royal Saudi abuse? Open in fullscreen

Shams Al-Shakarchi

Riyadh lifts the driving ban: 'carwashing' royal Saudi abuse?

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is likely behind the lifting of the ban [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 September, 2017

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
While the advance in women's social liberalisation in Saudi Arabia should be celebrated, commentators have contextualised the move as a cynical marketing ploy by an image-conscious regime.
As the only country in the world which banned women from driving, and one of the handful that carries out public executions, not to mention facing accusations of a multitude of human rights abuses, it's not hard to see Saudi Arabia suffers from an image problem.

This month alone a cleric was suspended for saying women had a quarter of a brain, and an imam suggested women "expired" as a reason for encouraging polygamous marriages.

Amnesty International condemned a crackdown on dissent after authorities detained more than 30 religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and activists.

And on Tuesday, the same day the driving ban was lifted, Saudi Arabia threatened economic retaliation against countries backing a UN inquiry into alleged war violations in Yemen.

While the victory for women who have endured arrests, threats and exile in campaiging to be allowed behind the wheel should not be downplayed, the long-awaited good news that they can now drive has inevitably come with a dose of sketpicism.

In a country forever held up as a benchmark for institutional oppression, the move has been considered by some commentators as little more than a cynical marketing ploy, possibly by king-in-waiting Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia wants to seek publicity and promote itself as a different kingdom than the one that we know.

Reacting to the news, dissident Saudi academic Madawi al-Rasheed said the regime "wants to divert attention" from other human rights abuses, highlighting the arrest of dozens of intellectuals since the beginning of this month.

"This is too little too late," Rasheed said, speaking on BBC World Service. "Driving is just a symbol of gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia, there are more important and urgent issues for women and for rest of society."

One of the main issues affecting Saudi women, she added, was the male guardianship system, which prohibits women from marrying, going to hospital or finding employment without permission from a male guardian.

The regime presenting itself as a progressive administration was "simply because human rights for women and gender equality makes these dictators look good, at least internationally," Rasheed said.

She added it was "interesting" the announcement came from Saudi's ambassador to the US, and therefore intended to be received by an international audience.

"Saudi Arabia wants to seek publicity and promote itself as a different kingdom than the one that we know.

"There is a long way to go before we can celebrate women's rights in Saudi Arabia," she added. "In my view, this will have to come as part of political liberalisation and we have to move away from the absolute monarchy."

This issue is so well-known, disputed and symbolic that lifting the ban has more immediate impact than almost any other single announcement they could make

Writing in Prospect magazine, Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow and deputy head of the MENA Programme at Chatham House, also considered the lifting of the ban as a superficial stunt.

"Internationally [the driving ban] has symbolised women's oppression and inequality in Saudi Arabia, while at home conservatives have portrayed women driving as a danger to public morality, road safety and even their own fertility.

"Changing this is an international PR coup for Saudi Arabia and for Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who is far more media-savvy and PR-conscious than his predecessors.

"This issue is so well-known, disputed and symbolic that lifting the ban has more immediate impact than almost any other single announcement they could make."

On social media, the news was met with similar warnings, with one admonishing the development as "fake freedom".

Is the PR machine just warming up? It churned out another crowd-pleaser late on Tuesday; for the first time, a woman has been appointed the role of spokesperson for Saudi Arabia's embassy in the United States. 

The New ArabComments

Most Popular

Most Popular

    Read More