CLERICS in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, have long struggled to justify the kingdom’s decades-old ban on women driving. Often they resorted to strange excuses. Some said women were too stupid to drive. Some worried that male drivers might be dangerously distracted by female ones, or that mobility would make it easier for wives to commit adultery. One suggested that driving damages the ovaries. None was able to cite a verse in the Koran to justify barring women from the wheel, because there isn’t one. On the contrary, reformers note, in the early days of the faith women rode donkeys, unsupervised, without bringing death and destruction.
So the kingdom’s decision on September 26th to lift the ban is as welcome as it is overdue. It will give Saudi women a freedom that others take for granted. It will have economic benefits, too, sparing families the cost of hiring a (male) driver and making it easier for women to get out of the house and into the labour market. It makes Saudi Arabia a bit less dismally exceptional; no other country bans women drivers, unless you count the non-country, Islamic State. Yet it is only a start.
The kingdom has long been ruled by a pact between the Al Saud ruling family and Wahhabi clerics who impose their ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law. In part its puritanism was a response to a double shock in 1979, the Islamic revolution in mainly Shia Iran and the siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca by Sunni extremists. In private, Saudi royals often espouse more liberal views, but they have always feared upsetting their alliance with the clerics.
The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he is called), is a bolder sort of royal. His father, King Salman, has given him control over most things, including the economy and defence policy. MBS, in turn, has drawn up an ambitious reform programme to diversify the country away from oil and wean Saudis off do-little government jobs by energising the private sector. Tapping the kingdom’s greatest underused resource—its women—is an obvious place to begin. More women attend Saudi universities than men, but they make up just 15% of the workforce. Come June, when the ban is officially lifted, they will be able to drive themselves to work.
MBS has chipped away at the wilaya (guardianship) system, which puts women under the thumb of male relatives, and curbed the religious police, who used to hound young Saudis for such offences as wearing nail polish. Public concerts, previously banned, started this year. There is even talk of opening cinemas for the first time since the 1980s. Saudis are among the most digitally connected people in the world. MBS is right to sense that they want more freedom. His next steps should be to abolish the wilaya system entirely and curb the influence that Wahhabi clerics exercise over Saudi schools and social policy. Wahhabism, after all, is one of the ideological pillars of global jihadism.
The headstrong prince
The flipside of MBS’s boldness is his propensity to act rashly. He has pursued a cruel war in Yemen and led a diplomatic assault on Qatar, with little to show for either. The lifting of the ban on women drivers seems timed to distract attention from the recent suppression of dissent at home. The dissidents his regime has locked up include reformers and even clerics who argued for lifting the driving ban. Social liberalisation is being pursued by illiberal means, and incoherently. It is hard to envisage MBS succeeding in his ambitious plans by royal decree. He needs to garner more consent. To obtain it, he must learn to tolerate debate and disagreement. Eventually he should move towards some form of democratic consultation.