SAUDI ARABIA: The Saudi Transition and Women's Right to Drive

Friday, June 22, 2012
Isobel Coleman for the Council on Foreign Relations
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Last Sunday, June 17, marked the first anniversary of the Saudi Women2Drive campaign. Activists had planned another driving demonstration to mark the anniversary, calling on Saudi women with international driver's licenses to take to the roads and to flood the traffic department with applications. They also called on men to support their wives, sisters, and mothers by sitting beside them in the passenger seat as they defied the driving ban. The demonstration was postponed, however, due to the death of Crown Prince Nayef last weekend. As head of the Interior Ministry for decades, Nayef had long taken a hard line on women driving. Although there is no law that specifically prohibits women from driving, Nayef had made clear that they would never gain that right under his watch. After a women's driving demonstration in 1990 (in which women were arrested, as they were last year), he issued a formal ban on women behind the wheel.

Indeed, Nayef was something of a bête noire to reformers in Saudi Arabia who saw his heavy hand stymieing attempts at modernization, particularly with respect to women, from speaking out against women voting to holding firm on the driving issue. He oversaw the dreaded religious police–the group infamous for hindering rescue efforts in the 2002 girls' school fire—and maintained close relations with religious conservatives. Yet as I have noted earlier, Nayef was also a pragmatist who cared most about self-preservation. My guess is that if he felt public opinion in Saudi Arabia broadly supported women driving, he wouldn't have blocked it. Supposedly he happily allowed his own daughters to drive when they were outside the country. But Nayef was hardly the visionary leader to shift his country toward more of a modern outlook.

With Nayef now gone, there is some speculation, and hope, that his successor might take a more reformist approach–not only with women's rights, but also on a range of issues. However, it is unlikely that Prince Salman, the new crown prince, will make much of a difference for women's rights or move beyond the path of incremental reform chosen by King Abdullah. Roughly 76, Salman is twelve years younger than the king, but he is no spring chicken. He is also reported to be unwell. Moreover, he will face the same challenge of trying to balance demands for reform against powerful religious conservatives who want to live in the seventh century. Attitudes towards women's rights are the ultimate marker of conservatism versus modernism in Saudi Arabia. I would not expect any significant changes on that front until succession moves to the next generation. Those future leaders might have a different calculation on what is the best way to keep the House of Saud in power. In the meantime, the determined activists behind Women2Drive have called for a new demonstration tomorrow. I wish them luck.