Mark P. Lagon
Politics, Middle East
The jury is out on how far Mohammed bin Salman will go in steering reforms to liberate the innovation and productivity of younger Saudis.
Precisely because women and human-rights activists in Saudi Arabia have highlighted its past proscription as a symbol, the royal decree granting Saudi women the right to drive is no small matter. And it surprisingly comes as the Saudi government has been enthusiastically embraced by a U.S. president who said—on Saudi territory—“We are not here to lecture” autocracies.
This step comes among a number of economic and social initiatives uncorked by the ambitious Crown Prince of the House of Saud, Mohammed bin Salman. However, it prompts several key questions.
How liberating is driving? Having myself helped choose Saudi blogger Hala al-Dosari as primary honoree at Freedom House’s seventy-fifth anniversary celebration in 2016—precisely because she was a female voice for freedom in the most repressive of U.S. ostensible allies—it seems to me one must ask what Saudi women really need and want most to thrive unfettered. While women now no longer need to rely on drivers (as it happens, putting part of the massive population of guest workers in Saudi Arabia out of work), there is a far larger barrier to their autonomy and ability to apply their gifts economically. The guardianship law, which requires male relatives to approve or accompany women in their activities, is what truly stands in the way.