A Driving Issue that Just Won’t Go Away, Until it Does

September 30, 2011

Patrick W. Ryan | SUSRISblog

On Sunday King Abdullah opened the new Majlis As Shura, or Consultative Council, session in Riyadh with a speech heard around the world. Giving Saudi women the right to participate in Municipal Council elections as of 2015 and to be eligible for service in the Majlis stirred both applause and backhanded criticism. The reform minded King’s move was hailed as a positive development by some and derided as falling too short by others. “Thanks for shaking things up by bringing about women’s voting rights, but how do you expect them to get to the polls if they can’t drive,” so it goes. Damned if you do and damned if you do.

Emblematic of that reaction was a political cartoon in this morning’s American Bedu blog showing two women in abayas under a notation “Saudi Arabia: 2015.” The first one asks, “Did you vote..?” The answer, “No… my husband wouldn’t drive me.”

The question of women driving is never far from the top of the list of issues that stand in the way of progress for women in the Kingdom on many people’s minds, especially among those outside the Kingdom looking in. It was important enough to be among the questions asked in 2005 of King Abdullah in his first television interview after assuming the throne — his questioner was ABC News correspondent Barbara Walters — as reported on SUSRIS.com in October 2005.

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WALTERS: A flashpoint for Westerners is that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. It seems to be symbolic of a woman’s lack of independence. Would you support allowing a woman to drive?

ABDULLAH: I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. And I was born of a woman. I believe the day will come when women drive. In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible.

[Interview break for video clips and Walter's comments]

WALTERS: There are so many restrictions against women. Do you see this changing?

ABDULLAH: Yes, I believe we can. But it will require a little bit of time.

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Several months later Dr. Rachel Bronson, author of “Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia” and, at the time, the Council on Foreign Relations Director for Middle East and Gulf Studies, toured Saudi Arabia and attended the 2006 Jeddah Economic Forum. Afterward she talked with SUSRIS about the issues on people’s minds, among which were driving for women and reform in general:

“Last year when I was in the kingdom no one wanted to talk about women driving. ‘You Americans, all you want to talk about is women driving.’ ‘Driving is not an issue.’ ‘We lost that issue in 1991.’ ‘We want to talk about education and job opportunities.’ ‘Driving will come at some point.’ Over the course of the last year that has changed 180 degrees. Driving was what all the women were talking about.. ..The US revolutionary rhetoric is not the speed or direction that they want to pursue. They are going to go at their own speed and in their own way whether or not that is fast enough, Americans don’t think it is but we haven’t gotten a lot right in the region lately.”

And what about the pace of change? SUSRIS has chronicled political, economic and social reforms in the Kingdom since it began covering Saudi-US relations in 2003. Engineer Usamah Al-Kurdi, a prominent businessman and reform-minded member of the Majlis As Shura, periodically updates SUSRIS on progress in this arena. In an exclusive interview in 2004 he explained how the process of change worked, telling SUSRIS:

“In response to questions relating to international pressure to reform, I say that people need to understand Saudi Arabia a little bit more before trying to impose reform from outside. This is not only for Saudi Arabia, but I think it applies to all countries, particularly Middle Eastern countries. In my opinion, these initiatives to impose reform on other countries that are coming from the United States and other countries might do more harm than good.

“What we need at this time is to learn from the experience of others. What we need at this time is to take our time with reform because you can’t go too fast with reform. We have seen bad experiences around the world. We don’t need more pressure. There is already dialogue and discussions in the country. Again, we’ve been doing that for 10 or 11 years. Do we need the experience of others? Yes, we do. We’re soliciting that when we need to. Reforms have started to happen in Saudi Arabia, are happening, and there is a commitment to continue doing so.”

A year later Al-Kurdi updated SUSRIS noting he was “happy to report that reform in Saudi Arabia was continuing.” He included the new efforts on women’s issues, “Reform steps have been taken this year with an important one among them, in my opinion, being Resolution 120. It provides for the government to address the well being of women of Saudi Arabia. This resolution included the creation of a national committee for women. It also included special attention to services provided to women, business opportunities for women and, of course, job opportunities for women.”

He went on to describe decision making in such matters, “”Saudi Arabia is a country of institutions. I also said before that to continue on the path of reform in Saudi Arabia, public support is important. When a decision is made in Saudi Arabia you are certainly able to detect the consensus that was created in support of that decision.”

Earlier this year as protests and revolts swept across North Africa and the Middle East Dr. Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reminded us of the important question of stability in the Kingdom. He noted, “Moderate Saudi intellectuals and youths have sent letters and petitions, and called for more rapid reform. A small number of Saudi women have demonstrated. More extreme voices have called for ‘days of rage.’” Cordesman continued, “A small, highly vocal minority does not speak for a nation,” and he pointed out the reality faced by reformers – be they monarchs or not, “Saudi calls for reform compete with an extremely conservative clergy and population in a nation where change is critical to economic, political, and social development.”

Movement on these issues is also connected to economic imperatives for the Kingdom. Elizabeth Pfiester, writing in these pages after the June women’s driving campaign made headlines, noted, “Not only would allowing women to drive grant them a much deserved right, but .. it could also ease the financial burden on households and the Kingdom. It may even help reduce the kingdom’s dependence on outstanding numbers of foreigners who work as drivers. A large number of families in Saudi Arabia have at least one driver who they must pay average salary of around 2,000 Saudi riyals ($533) per month. Any family without sufficient funds for this kind of help must rely on a male member of the family to drive them, which is often a time-consuming burden.”

There are voices of reform optimism, like Al-Kurdi who told SUSRIS this April, “The good thing is that everyone in Saudi Arabia agrees that this reform needs to continue. We have institutions to support the reform. We have a society that is able and willing to encourage reforms, as we have seen in the past. So all signs say the challenge can be met.”

How change is effected in Saudi Arabia was also touched upon by Chatham House Middle East North Africa Program director Claire Spencer writing in “The Telegraph” today:

“Things may move slowly in Saudi Arabia, but support for managed change and transition appears to be an issue close to many Saudi hearts. Not for them the street protests seen across the rest of the Arab world this year; instead, they have delivered an accelerated series of online petitions addressed respectfully to the King, punctuated by the occasional arrest of a cleric, blogger or intellectual deemed to have overstepped the mark.

“Even the campaign to promote the issuing of driving licences to women – which constitutes the main impediment to their legal right to drive – has, with a few notable exceptions, been conducted within certain norms. Most of the women to have taken charge of the steering wheel this year have been veiled and accompanied by a male guardian, as required by culturally enforced tradition, if not the full force of law.”

We are left mindful of the optimism of King Abdullah as well, who after all is the one doing the driving in this matter who, six years ago told TV interviewer Barbara Walters, “Our people are just now beginning to open up to the world, and I believe that with the passing of days in the future everything is possible.”

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With the foregoing in mind as context for questions about reform in general and issues important to Saudi women, among them driving, we offer for your consideration yesterday’s Arab News editorial, “The Driving Issue,” which explains some of the impediments to and hopes for advancement of such reforms.

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Editorial: The driving issue
Arab News – Sep 29, 2011

Status of women provokes a great deal of comment within Saudi Arabia itself

There is no point trying to pretend that Saudi Arabia does not come in for a considerable amount of criticism from other parts of the world over the status of women in Saudi society — the issue of women not being allowed to drive, of women not being allowed a passport or leave the country without the permission of a male member of their family, of businesswomen having to have a male manager, of the restrictions on women lawyers. There are many more issues.

Much of that criticism ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia is, of its own choice, a very conservative society. It ignores too the fact that it is only relatively recently in Western countries that women have won the rights they now have. Women in the US gained the right to vote only in 1920, in UK it was in 1928, in France in 1944; in Switzerland, which claims to be one of the oldest democracies on earth, as recently as 1971. Compared to them Saudi Arabia is a young country.

The criticism also ignores the reality that the status of women provokes a great deal of comment and debate within Saudi Arabia itself. It is the hot issue.

Sunday’s historic announcement from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah — a consistent promoter of women’s rights — that women will in future be allowed to vote and stand for municipal councils and be appointed to the Shoura Council, therefore, drew the attention of the world. It has been welcomed as a sign of the Kingdom’s commitment to reform and progress. It was unfortunate then that almost immediately afterward the next Saudi story the international media focused on was that of Shayma Jastaniah, the Saudi woman sentenced to 10 lashes for driving in Jeddah. It inevitably made comparisons between the decision on women voting and the sentence, claiming that the latter undermined the importance of the former and that there were contradictions on the position of women in the Kingdom.

Saudis too have said as much. It is now rumored that the Shayma has been reprieved. If true, it would be welcome news and would go some considerable way to undo the perception that Saudi Arabia is sending out mixed messages on the status of woman. The issue of women driving is not going to go away. It is not a question of if it will happen. It is a question of when. We would hope as soon as possible. But there are those who have different views — and they are not all men. It is an issue that has to be debated but that debate has to be carried out in a calm and dignified atmosphere. Clearly, reports of women being sentenced to be lashed for driving do not contribute to a calm atmosphere.

However, while the driving issue is not going to go away, it would be wrong to imagine that now that women are to have the vote, it is the top women’s issue. It has great symbolic significance but there are many other goals to achieve, some of them mentioned above. As a conservative society, Saudi Arabia moves slowly — but it moves. And, as has been seen time and again, the king is a champion of modernization and reform. That is reason for great confidence.

Source: Arab News

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