A rich and secretive nation with a wealth of oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is known as much for its affluence as well as its obedience to strict religious and traditional customs. Such piety is visible in many aspects of its society, particularly in relation to the daily lives of Saudi women. The Kingdom’s “guardianship” rule and the driving ban for women are cases in point. According to the BBC, the guardianship rule stipulates that “women need permission from a male family member – her father, husband or someone else – to do things like apply for a passport, travel abroad, marry, get divorced, open a bank account, get a job or have some types of medical surgery”.
With regards to the driving rule, women have been unable to drive in the Kingdom, with many having been fined or arrested for flouting this. However, a recent lifting of the driving ban by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, as well as the introduction of other social reforms, have sought to transform the nation into a more modern, globally attractive country for overseas investment and tourism. The Facilitate4Me Change Practitioner for July 2018 goes to… Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, for implementing the significant social change for women to drive for the very first time in the country’s history.
Being the only country left in the world where women weren’t allowed to drive, the 24th June 2018 marked the most significant step in the Crown Prince’s journey to revolutionise and transform Saudi Arabia. As part of his broader “2030 Vision”, Muhammad bin Salman, amongst other things, hopes to diversify the nation’s economy and steer it away from its heavy reliance on oil, which currently makes up more than 80% of government income according to the IMF.
One way to do this he sees, is to increase the number of women in the workforce. And to do that, they need to be able to drive to work.
Up until now according to the Economist, GDP per person in Saudi Arabia has been flat for decades, with the nation’s vast oil wealth having long hidden a woefully unproductive economy. At the same time, Saudi women are less likely to work than women in any other country in the G20. Lifting the driving ban according to CNN, will “liberate many women from the constraints of needing to hire a male driver to travel even small distances, allowing many more to join the workforce, grow their own businesses and explore the kingdom”, thus boosting production and giving the nation’s economy a much needed lift.
The move to allow women to drive seems to be a popular one among Saudi Women, with more than 120,000 applying for driving licences on the first day it became legal. As with the introduction of any change however, not every stakeholder is happy about the new policy. Powerful clerics who have long helped to enforce the status quo have bemoaned what they see as the negative consequences of the Crown Prince’s laws.
The Crown Prince’s 2030 Vision is a bold and ambitious one, with broad and vast-reaching aims to diversify the economy, tackle corruption and develop its public sectors including education and tourism. The need to overhaul the economy and attract foreign investment is the burning platform that has taken precedence over the nation’s adherence to the status quo. It is not going through uncharted waters however. Dubai, which has been described by the Economist as “open to the world, friendly to business, efficiently run, socially liberal (and) religious tolerant”, is a role model.
Saudi Arabia certainly has some way to go before it can achieve these aims, but there is no doubt that the lifting of the female driving ban is the first of many more social reforms to come.