Saudi liberals have been predicting for years that a decision to allow women to drive is imminent. The predictions started with Abdullah taking over the management of state affairs as crown prince in the late 1990s and intensified after he became king in 2005. Nothing happened then and nothing has happened now, even as women make considerable efforts to promote the issue through social and political activism.
The forlorn hope that the Saudi ruling family would budge on this issue reveals some misunderstandings – which can be attributed to wishful thinking – about the way the system works. Governance in the country is first and foremost a bargain between the al-Saud family and the religious scholars, or ulama. There are other bargains, such as that with the Hejazi commercial elite, which was replaced by a Najdi elite after the oil boom of the 1970s; but the key alliance for ensuring the social and political peace that al-Saud needs to maintain its rule is that with the ulama.
And the ulama have been adamant in their objection to women behind the wheel. Former Mufti Abdulaziz Bin Baz was very clear on the issue in a fatwa issued after a celebrated incident in 1990 when women defied authority and drove their cars through central Riyadh. “It leads to corruption – being alone with men, unveiling, freely mixing with men, committing that which is banned […] God ordered the Prophet and the faithful women to stay at home, to conceal themselves, to avoid being adorned before people other than their guardians, since this would lead to licentiousness that would destroy society”, he said.
Bin Baz died in 1999 but he cast a long shadow. In September this year, Saleh al-Lohaidan, a member of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, came out with a timely comment that, despite its ridiculousness to those observing this issue outside of Saudi Arabia, was intended as a message to both ordinary Saudis and to those in power that the ulama remain firmly opposed to women driving. “If a woman drives a car it could have a negative physiological impact [...] Medical studies show that [driving] would automatically affect a woman’s ovaries and that it pushes the pelvis upward”, he said. It doesn't matter that the comments were “widely derided”, as CNN said – indeed, Saudis derided them too – the message was sent.
And it was heard. When women planned to challenge the ban nationwide on 26 October 2013 the interior ministry issued a warning through the state news agency against “banned gatherings and protests concerning women driving”, and the warning appeared in all Saudi newspapers. While it did not say directly that a woman at the wheel would be apprehended – beyond key fatwas, there is no direct legal ruling preventing it – the intent was clear. Checkpoints were set up around the country – a woman who chose to drive was a potential “activist” engaging in an act of protest, threatening what the statement called “social peace”. Tariq al-Mubarak, a columnist who writes for the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, was detained without charge for several days after writing against the ban and “rabble-rousers” and “extremists” whom he said were preventing people from claiming their freedoms.
It was not a coincidence that Lohaidan published his comments on a news website, sabq.org, close to the interior ministry – they are on the same page – and it’s worth noting that a figure like Bin Baz was revered not only by devout Muslims among the populace but by Saudi princes too. Alwaleed bin Talal talked warmly of him in his biography, as did Prince Sultan bin Salman when I met him in 2007. The prince became the first Muslim to go into space as a payload specialist on board the American space shuttle Discovery in 1985. He sought advice from Bin Baz on how he could pray and fast, since it was Ramadan, while in orbit. He then headed to sheikh’s home in Taif on his return to tell him about his discoveries. (He even claimed he had persuaded Bin Baz to recant his infamous claim that the Earth was not flat: “He said people needed to travel more and see evidence of the roundness of the earth. He loved it and he said a few times he wished he wasn’t blind so that he could see the photographs”)
The idea of a breach between “reformers” among key Saudi princes and a hardline clergy is false. It derives from the propaganda that Abdullah supporters promoted and wishful thinkers inside and beyond the kingdom believed in the “reformer king”. But the truth is the king missed his chance. In the era of the Arab uprisings, the question of women driving has become far more fraught and contentious – for two reasons. Concessions to street demands are more loaded with meaning then they would have been previously, and al-Saud does not want to alienate key constituencies such as the ulama whom have helped it maintain order since 2011. The al-Saud family fears that to act in direct response to street pressure will show weakness and open the floodgates to demands that might never stop; as for the ulama, with their own fears of the “secularisation” of the sharia state – to them an Islamic model – they have made plain their out-and-out opposition.
One thing al-Saud does respond to is international humiliation, especially from the US. When a woman was raped by several men in 2007 and subsequently convicted by courts for having been with unrelated members of the opposite sex in the first place, the king came out with a “pardon” in response to comments from President George W. Bush and shock in US media (though US Secretary of State John Kerry’s non-comments last week are a sign of the challenge).
The ruling family will of course argue that it is part of the culture, which is religious, and the authorities cannot force people to accept that which goes against their traditions. These are of course manipulations. Qatar has its traditions but gave up preventing women from driving in the 1990s; Saudi women in many rural areas take to the wheel often. Once again women and their fundamental rights have become caught up in grand conflicts, waged by men, concerning power and identity – clerics determined to retain their status in the Islamic Utopia and rulers fearful of change in an era of dangerous popular currents.
Andrew Hammond is a visiting fellow with ECFR's Middle East and North Africa Programme.
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