Global Migration & Politics
Analysis and commentary on the politics of the Middle East, of the power games that defines the region, and the economic, religious and ethnic problems the region is often facing.

When Saudi women got to drive

Last Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman announced that from June 2018, women will be allowed to drive in the kingdom. Champions for women’s rights around the world cheered, and politicians offering congratulations from all over. But this change in Saudi policy is much more than women’s rights and the right to drive. This step is about improving the country’s economy, an attempt to break away from the complex relations between the royal family and the priesthood. A step that will affect the future livelihoods of about 800,000 people in the country. The focus is on a new identity and national feeling in Saudi Arabia while trying to find its position on shaky legs in a new porous reality.

The decree drew great international attention and triggered congratulations from the western world.

Several media stated that the decision is a big step in the right direction for Saudi Arabian liberties, as many female activists and human rights defenders praised the decree, which also says women should not depend on the approval by their male guardian – typically a husband, son or brother.

Here, Manal al-Sharif, a famous advocator of Saudi Arabian women’s rights, celebrated world-renowned car driving in 2011 and posted on YouTube in protest.

At that time she was arrested. On Tuesday she tweeted on Twitter:

Not only for the sake of women

However, the lifting of the ban on women should not only be seen as a victory for women and their freedom of movement in public spaces. It is first and foremost an important part of the economic reforms that the country is undergoing in these years. The vision plan Vision2030 was launched by the country’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016. The specific purpose of the plan is to diversify the country’s economy away from being based on oil revenues.

For economically disadvantaged families who have not been able to afford a driver, the decree means that female family members now have the opportunity to become a decisive financial contributor to family finances

In this particular context, women can now become an important contributor to the livelihood of their family.  If women can start driving, they can also start working outside the home without having to rely on their (male) drivers.

For economically disadvantaged families who have not been able to afford a driver, the decree means that female family members now have the opportunity to become a decisive financial contributor to the family’s economy.

For others, it will be a financial relief no longer having to pay for a driver to the family’s female family members.

One’s freedom – the death of another

The new freedom of women does not just mean increased freedom for women and movement in public spaces; It also has some unintended consequences.

It is estimated that at present approx. 800,000 foreigners – primarily from southern Asia – are employed as drivers for Saudi Arabian women. For this group of people, the decree will have fatal consequences because they lose their source of income and thus their residence in Saudi Arabia.

It is somewhat thought provoking that a woman’s freedom to drive a car in Saudi Arabia will have financial consequences for families in southern Asia

The use of foreign labor is a particularly well-developed phenomenon in the Middle East, as I have previously described.

The Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, have largely based their workforce on foreign labor, sending their paychecks to their families at home; so-called remittances. It is estimated that approximately $20 billion per year is transferred in the region.  In other words, big sums are at stake for a lot of people, not just within the borders of Saudi Arabia, but across the region.

It is somewhat thought provoking that a woman’s freedom to drive a car in Saudi Arabia will have financial consequences for families in southern Asia.

Women in Car – A Threat against the Priesthood?

Giving women given the freedom to drive a car, will not only improve their access to the labor market and thus making them potentiel contributors to the economy. It also touches upon a fundamental element of Saudi identity and self-awareness.

The identity of the country and the royal family’s legitimacy as sole rulers, is based on a so-called religious foundation, in which the priesthood has always played a crucial part securing that legitimacy of the royal family.

One should not underestimate the importance of the King’s official title being “Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina). A title which emphasizes that the religious component of the legacy of the royal family itself depends on the highest extent on the support of the priesthood.

Each step forward and towards development is considered a threat to the status quo and thus against the legitimacy of the priesthood

My thesis,  “The Coupling of Sectarianism and Identity in Saudi Arabia: The Economics of Religion” extensively analyzises this very complex relationship between the royal family and the priesthood.

For every single step taken forward towards development, is considered a threat to the status quo and thus against the legitimacy of the priesthood.

For both, priesthood and royal family, there is a relationship of interdependence from which none of them can disentangle, without losing an important part of their own identity. In other words, this is a somewhat strained partnership that has been somewhat scratched due to women’s access to driving cars.

The political signal value that the royal family dares taking through this groundbreaking decree, is of great importance vis-á-vis the role of the priesthood. Therefore, the decree should very much be seen as an attempt by the royal family to take a step away from the priesthood and the dysfunctional dependence upon which the familiy´s legitimacy exists.

The Art of Creating a New Nationality and Identity Form

Apart from allowing women to drive by car, there are several other minor steps towards including women’s involvement in the Saudi Arabian community.

Aside from the fact that in these years, the country is undergoing a series of economic reforms, the royal family is at the same time engaged in a major effort to create a true identity as a nation. These two things are deeply intertwined. Saudi Arabia has so far been a so-called rentier state ; where its residents have benefited from certain social benefits without having to pay taxes. Those days will soon be gone

In the coming weekend, celebrate Saudi Arabia’s sin 87th birthday as a nation . For this reason, a concert will be held in the form of an operette at the King Fahd International Stadium – the first of its kind in the country. The concert itself is an innovation, but the fact that women also have access to the concert is definitely groundbreaking – just as pioneering as the lifting of the driving ban for women.

As stated above, keep in mind that these sudden instances of women’s freedoms are not due to an acute insight of the royal family and the need to respect fundamental human rights for half the country’s population. Rather, it paves the way for economic reasons – including an acknowledgment that women can be a big and profitable source of income for the country’s somewhat heavily financed economy.

Aside from the fact that in these years the country is undergoing a series of economic reforms, the royal family is at the same time engaged in a major effort to create a true identity as a nation. Again, the economic aspect seems to be crucial for the creation of a new Saudi Arabian identity.

Saudi Arabia has up until now been a so-called rentier rate state where its inhabitants have benefited from certain social benefits without having to pay taxes. Those days will soon be gone. With a state that begins to levy taxes on its inhabitants, it has to have something else – something more – to bargain with when both social services and tax exemption are gone.

Party, colours and flag – a new beginning celebrating the nation’s birthday

The coming weekend’s festivitas in the occasion of the nation’s 87th birthday is an important part in this regard. The country’s flag will be on all official buildings in Riyadh this week, and the number of planned festivities in the occasion of the celebration is in indeed a signal of new times.

Previously, the priesthood prevented the celebration of the National day because it was considered non-Islamic. This year has been elevated to a big national celebration, with banners of both King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hanging from every building in the capital.

It has been firmly committed to creating a strong sense of new identity as a nation, thus linking stronger ties to nationality.

There are planned festivals in 17 cities to celebrate the national day over four days. Larger telecom operators have launched campaigns with patriotic undertones, as Riyadh’s skyscrapers drive an impressive light show across the night sky in green colors, the country’s national color.

In other words, there is a massive ongoing effort to create a strong sense of new identity as a nation and thus to tie stronger ties in the sense of nationality. Here too, the economy plays a crucial role. Because there is a need for a new consciousness and identity when the prietshood´s basic role in society has been defining norms and values for an entire nation is changing.

A new nation is taking shape – women´s right to drive was just the first step

Although theses festivities are groundbreaking, they do not seem to entirely meet the need for entertainment and dissemination by the population.

It is estimated that Saudi Arabs spend about $ 20 billion (about £ 130 billion) annually on holidays outside the country’s borders. Instead, this money can be used within the borders of the country if such activities are made available. There is a lot of money to be made through festivals, concerts, light shows and establishing amusement parks.

This is also a very conscious part of the country’s economic reforms, Vision2030; the concept of staycation – that the country’s residents are staying at home instead of going abroad . The notion of identity and nationality is intertwined: a satisfied population will happily spend their money  within the borders, e.g. on more cars (for example, female ticket owners) as well as entertainment centers and activities.

The big question is how the priesthood will relate to these new initiatives, and how these new underflows and tendencies that seem to take place in Saudi Arabia these days will evolve. Rumors have it that the Crown Prince is expected to be summoned to King very soon.

And thus a woman’s right to drive a car became much more than just a matter of a woman’s freedom. It became a matter of improving the country’s economy; an attempt to break away from the highly complex relationship with the priesthood; it became a problem for about 800,000 people’s future livelihoods; it became a question a new identity and nationality feeling in Saudi Arabia, a nation trying to find its position on shaky legs in a new porous reality.

For once, the dark men of the priesthood were right: Women can be quite dangerous.

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