By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
The royal decree to finally allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia will definitely be remembered as a landmark, positive moment in the Kingdom’s history. This courageous decision will single-handedly end what was regarded as a form of discrimination against females, and solve a long-lasting logistical nightmare for many Saudi women who will — from June 2018 — be able to travel the streets of their own country freely.
Much can be said in criticism of the illogical ban and the extremely long time it took to reverse it. This is however certainly a case of “better late than never”; and we should not for a single moment underestimate the significance of this bold move by Riyadh.
We should also not isolate this decision from a series of rapid reforms which have literally transformed many aspects of daily life in the Kingdom. In less than two years — and as part of the ambitious Vision 2030, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spearheads — we have seen the powers of the religious police curbed, an entertainment authority established, women’s sport encouraged and many Saudi females appointed to top jobs in the country. Just a few days ago, we saw women being allowed to enter football stadiums and others dancing in the street as they celebrated the Saudi National Day.
Are all targets of this vision achieved? Absolutely not. Is what was achieved so far sufficient? No.
However, no reasonable person can deny the significance of the changes mentioned above — particularly given the speed at which they were introduced and the challenges that surrounded them.
Indeed, with low oil prices, regional wars and political conflicts, many observers expected internal social reforms to take a back seat; clearly, they were shown to be wrong when Riyadh proved that there is no better time to reform than when your back is against the wall.
The decision to allow women to drive makes it clear that internal reforms and development are at the forefront of the national transformation plan. It also makes it clear that the Saudi government is adamant that there cannot be any reform unless it involves the whole society, i.e. women must be included.
On the other hand, the way society has accepted and absorbed the rapid and massive changes that have occurred in the past two years is a clear indicator the Kingdom is opening up on all levels. Indeed, we as a society have successfully provided the correct answer to all those who warned us about such reforms, saying that rape, corruption and sins will spread as soon as we open up. The answer was that such warnings were all unfounded.
The same fear-mongering came with calls to allow women to drive. However, as the official statement declared, the decision took time to brew and will take nine more months to implement to ensure that all the traffic safety requirements are met, driving academies are set up and the proper infrastructure is put in place.
What is also remarkable, according to the official statement, is that the majority of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars endorsed the decision. This definitely sends the right message, and one we knew all along: There is nothing in Islam that religiously prohibits women driving, and the driving ban was a temporary social matter which will now no longer exist.
So — with a new dynamic leadership, an ambitious vision and a more literate, open society — the stars were aligned for this historic decision to be made, and the government made it clear it didn’t want to waste the chance.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. He can be reached on Twitter @FaisalJAbbas